I spent Saturday afternoon in the Natural History Museum in London, not looking at the dinosaurs, but taking part in an event organised by the good people at Demos (not forgetting their colleagues at Lancaster) – nanoscientists-meet-nanopublics.
The format was a very gently moderated group discussion between nanoscientists of various ages (I think, alas, I was the oldest) and a group of members of the public who have been involved in a series of focus group discussions about nanotechnology. I’d summarise the demographic of my group as being “North London soccer mums” (with deep apologies to any of you who might read this!) – and I think it’s fair to say that the overall feeling towards nanotechnology was pretty negative. This was based on two things – an unease about untested nanoparticles in cosmetics, and a deeper unhappiness about the whole idea of human enhancement, particularly in a military context. I think we had a fairly productive discussion about both aspects.
One of the interesting things that came out in the discussion was this worry about “who is in charge”. I think it’s a natural human assumption to think that there is someone or some organisation that has the power to initiate change or to prevent it, if it is judged undesirable. But that’s not how science works in a liberal, globalised, market-driven system. I think this realisation that there really isn’t anyone in charge – not just in nanotechnology or any other part of science, but in all sorts of aspects of modern life – is what so many people find so frightening about the world we live in. But is there any alternative?