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.