The Stalinists of public engagement…

The recent pamphlet from Demos on the need for public engagement about nanotechnology and other new technologies has received forthright criticism from the editor of Research Fortnight, William Bown. The original editorial raised the spectre of Lysenko, and accused advocates of public engagement of being “worse than Stalinists”. One of the authors of the Demos paper, James Wilsdon, has energetically responded. The resulting exchange of letters will be published in Research Fortnight, but those readers who unaccountably have forgotten to renew their subscription to that organ can read them on the Demos blog.

I’m not going to attempt to summarise Bown’s argument here (mainly because I find it rather difficult to follow). But I will single out one statement he makes to take issue with. Arguing that public engagement simply provides a mechanism to help governments avoid making difficult decisions, he says “The question for these two [Tony Blair and Gordon Brown], and their companions in Parliament, is not whether they think science is shiny and exciting; it is whether they back the deployment of nanotechnology.” This seems to me to combine naiveity about politics with a real misunderstanding of the nature of the science. All the debates about nanotechnology should have made one thing absolutely clear: nanotechnology is not a single thing (like nuclear power, say) that we can choose to use or to turn away from. It’s a whole variety of different technologies and potential technologies, with an equally wide range of potential applications. Choices need to be made – are being made right now, in fact – about which research avenues should be pursued, and which should be left to others, and one of the key roles of public engagement is to inform those choices.

2 thoughts on “The Stalinists of public engagement…”

  1. Regarding the question of funding social scientists to work alongside researchers, an article by Julia Moore, a public policy scholar, described how the HGP handled it:

    “Whether nanotechnology research results in the ultimate doomsday machine or in mankind’s salvation is up to us. In the mid-1980s, there was considerable opposition to the now-celebrated Human Genome Project. The increased availability of genetic information raised difficult questions about how the information is used by insurance companies, law enforcement agencies, schools and employers. There also are big issues regarding commercial exploitation — for example, who owns genes and other pieces of DNA, and what can be patented?

    “The founders of the Human Genome Project acknowledged that they did not have answers to these significant societal questions. So they set aside 5% of the project’s annual budget for a program to define and deal with the ethical, legal and social implications raised by this brave new world of genetics — creating one of the largest such efforts ever.”

    My question is, did that really solve anything??? Other than provide some good public
    relations for the HGP? I haven’t heard of any of the ethical issues
    raised by genetic sequencing having been solved by this panel of
    ethicists. Issues of commercial use, ownership, patenting; questions
    of access to genetic information by law enforcement, medical personnel,
    insurance companies; all of these questions are as much up in the air
    as ever. To the extent that they have de facto solutions (like the
    community-wide genetic screening used a few times in England, or the
    patent office policies allowing genetic patents) these have been created
    by the political process and not this board of ethical experts.

    One thing I’ve noticed in articles by public policy analysts and
    ethicists: they all advice giving more money to public policy analysts
    and ethicists! Notice in the above what really impressed the author
    wasn’t so much that the HGP set up an ethics council, but that they gave
    it 5% of their budget. That was a lot of money. Imagine if 5% of the
    money spent on nanotech went to public policy scholars like the author.
    That might not do much for society but it would certainly benefit her.

  2. I believe that the National Nanotechnology Initiative does have a requirement to spend some fraction of its budget on studies of environmental, legal and social aspects, but I don’t know if that fraction is 5%. Jasanoff’s book has some interesting insights into the human genome project’s ethics program, not least the casual way in which it was conceived by James Watson, pretty much off the cuff in a press conference. I’m not sure either how effective it was, but I suspect it was no worse than its successor organisation, the President’s Council on Bioethics, which seems to me to have been much too partisan under the chairmanship of Leon Kass to be helpful. For a positive example of how this kind of initiative can work, you could point to the experience of the UK’s Warnock report, which did seem to succeed in building a widely accepted compromise which has taken a lot of the political heat out of issues around stem cell research here.

    But ultimately, the really big moral issue around the Human Genome Project was the question of whether, given the challenge from Venter’s private sector effort, there would actually be a publically funded Human genome project, producing freely available information, at all. Ultimately that issue was decided, not by careful academic studies, but by a mixture of personal conviction, hardball politics and the commitment of a biomedical charity (the Wellcome Trust) with very deep pockets.

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