The limits of public engagement

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.”

2 thoughts on “The limits of public engagement”

  1. Your statements and Christine Peterson’s response speaks to the marked difference between the two camps in Nanotechnology. The first camp, that is the UK and a large part of the EC believes this technology must be developed in the public interest and are taking advantage of the communication capabilities of the ‘net. The second camp, dominated by the US and to a degree followed in Canada, sees Nanotechnology as another product to be exploited.
    What is interesting, however, is there seem to be a small, but growing movement within the ‘Science in the Public Interest’ movement which is bringing more and more material within reach of the Street every day.
    We, as part of our, self benefiting mandate are taking great advantage of this largesse, launching ‘Raids’ whenever a new piece of information comes along enabling us to expand the literacy base.
    I suggest that Scientific Discovery as a goal within itself should take precedence over the P3 formula of Profit-Profit-Profit.
    Nanototechnology is way too exciting to leave to the Labs and the Bankers.

  2. Ooops. I mucked up the HTML in the previous post. Hopefully I’ll get it right this time:

    How can we ensure that the scientific enterprise is directed in pursuit of societal goals that command broad democratic support?

    This, of course, depends on how we define “societal goals” . Elsewhere on this blog , Richard, you write:

    “I don’t think it’s unreasonable for there to be an expectation that in the future that research will have economic or social impacts, even if we don’t know right now what those impacts might be.”

    I don’t quibble with the idea that some basic research may have unpredictable long term technological spin-offs. My argument lies with the suggestion that we should expect all science to deliver an economic (i.e. primarily technological in the case of nanoscience) benefit. My key concern is that we are sliding ever-faster towards a situation where EPSRC will insist that all proposals are assessed in terms of their economic impact.

    In my opinion, “societal” and “economic” benefits, while commonly bundled together, are very distinct entities. I would argue that all good science has a societal benefit. Consider, for example, the following areas (excuse the bias towards physics and astrophysics): the search for exoplanets; astrophysics in general; particle physics; string theory and other efforts to build a grand unified theory; Bose-Einstein condensates ..etc..etc..etc…

    Is the only reason we fund these areas because they will in the long term deliver an economic/technological benefit? Or could there perhaps be a societal benefit beyond the commercial value of a piece of research?

    I’m of course simply re-hashing “age-old” arguments about the value of basic research. The following really interesting thesis, “Goodbye Blue Skies?” provides a very useful history and discussion of the evolution of thinking on this topic. What I find so depressing is that EPSRC, in their efforts to be seen to enthusiastically embrace the government’s science and innovation framework (as outlined here ) and the intensely frustrating Warry report , have completely ignored the response of the scientific and academic community with regard to assessing grant proposals in terms of their economic impact. I must admit that I’m very proud of the University of Nottingham response to RCUK’s “consultation document” on economic impact, viz. :

    “This option appears to fly in the face of the purpose of “research” within universities. To deny awards on the bases of criteria which are themselves biased in favour of certain types of research and certain disciplines governed by only some of the Research Councils is inappropriate. The quality of the science has to take precedence over economic impact.”

    Interestingly, RCUK’s own analysis of UK HEI responses on the question of economic impact as a criterion for the assessment of responsive mode proposals is as follows:

    “A generally held view was that a formal assessment of potential economic impact should not be part of the funding process for responsive mode proposals as this could lead to the funding of ‘safe’ science proposals with short term benefits. There was a general opinion that peer review for scientific excellence and judgement of economic impact are different activities and should remain separated, with scientific quality remaining the primary criteria for funding. Research projects with short term economic impacts should not influence the funding of highly rated proposals and should not be supported at the expense of long term, fundamental research that is of interest to the nation as a whole.”

    So, how does EPSRC respond to this feedback? By specifically incorporating a section on “Economic Impact” into the peer review form, accompanied by the strong suggestion that panels will also need to compare grant proposals in terms of their economic impact. (Quite what RCUK understands by the term “consultation” is beyond me. Perhaps it’s similar to the government’s understanding of EU renewable energy targets, i.e. that they’re open to “statistical interpretations…which make them easier to achieve” )

    Returning to the question of “societal goals” and the central theme of Richard’s post above, the following quotes from the Nanodialogues report are rather pertinent:

    “I object to the fact that we’re called consumers. We’re not humans anymore. We’re consumers”

    “My thinking’s changed, because I did say when we were in our
    last group, I said that perhaps the research that’s going on should
    be of benefit to people, like you’re paying tax into things. But
    sitting at home in the last few weeks, I felt I’d hate to stop
    research that’s going on . . . because it’s valuable in other fields
    rather than just beneficial to us . . .”

    As someone who was involved with one of the Nanodialogues sessions, what was perhaps most surprising for me was the general acceptance by the members of the “general public” (an unfortunately patronising term) to whom I spoke of the importance of funding basic research. (Although admittedly this was necessarily a rather small number of people in the Nanodialogues session in question). Their comments certainly resonate with Martin’s in the preceding post – there indeed seemed to be a feeling that there is much more to science than just product development.

    I apologise for yet another extremely long post.

    Best wishes,


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