Over on Nanodot, Christine Peterson picks up on some comments I made about public engagement in the Foreword to the final report of the Nanotechnology Engagement Group – Democratic technologies?. Having enumerated some of the problems and difficulties of seeking public engagement about nanotechnology, I finished with the positive words “I believe that the activities outlined in this report are just the start of a very positive movement that seeks to answer a compelling question: how can we ensure that the scientific enterprise is directed in pursuit of societal goals that command broad democratic support?”
“That last question is a tough one,” Christine writes. She raises two interesting questions on the back of this. “Public research funds should go toward goals supported by the public, and our representative governmental systems are supposed to ensure that. Do they?” The record is mixed, of course, but I’m not convinced that science and conventional politics interact terribly well. The paradox of science is that its long term impacts may be very large, but in the short term there are always more urgent matters to deal with, and it is these issues, healthcare or economics, for example, that will decide elections. The elected politicians nominally in charge of public science budgets typically have many other responsibilities too, and their attention is often diverted by more immediate problems.
She goes on to ask “How about private research funds: can they pursue goals not supported by the majority? We don’t want a system where the public votes on how private science dollars are spent, do we?” In a way she then goes on to start to answer her own question “Unless they are violating a specific law, presumably” – there are some goals of science that in most countries are outlawed, regardless of who is funding the work, most notably human reproductive cloning. But there are some interesting discussions to be had about less extreme cases. One of the major sources of private science dollars are the charitable foundations, such as the UK’s Wellcome Foundation, which has £13 billion to play with, and the $33 billion of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. One could certainly imagine in principle a situation in which a foundation pursued a goal with only minority support, but in practise the big foundations seem to be commendably sensitive to public concerns, more so in many ways than government agencies.
Much applied science is done by public companies, and there it is the shareholders who have an obvious interest and responsibility. It’s interesting, for example, that in the UK one of the major driving forces behind the development of a “Responsible NanoCode” for business is a major asset manager, which manages investments in public companies by institutions such as pension funds and insurance companies. There is considerable less clarity, of course, in the case of companies owned by venture capital and private equity, and these could be involved in research that may well turn out to be very controversial (one thinks, for example, of Synthetic Genomics, the company associated with Craig Venter which aims to commercialise synthetic biology). Irrespective of their ownership structure, the mechanisms of the market mean that companies can’t afford to ignore public opinion. There’s a tension, of course, between the idea that the market provides a sensitive mechanism by which the wants and needs of the public are met by private enterprise, and the view that companies have become adept at creating new consumer wants and desires, sometimes against the better interests both of the consumers themselves and wider society. The Nanodialogues project reports a very interesting public engagement exercise with a multinational consumer products company that explores this tension.
What isn’t in doubt is that global science and technology can seem a complex, unpredictable and perhaps uncontrollable force. The science fiction writer William Gibson puts this well in a recent interview: “I think what scares people most about new technologies — it’s actually what scares me most — is that they’re never legislated into being. Congress doesn’t vote on the cellular telephony initiative and create a cellphone system across the United States and the world. It just happens and capital flows around and it changes things at the most intimate levels of our lives, but we never decided to do it. Somewhere now there’s a team of people working on something that’s going to profoundly impact your life in the next 10 years and change everything. You don’t know what it is and they don’t know how it’s going to change your life because usually these things don’t go as predicted.”