Like many academics, I’ve come back from my summer holiday only to leave immediately for a flurry of conferences. This year has been particularly busy. Last week saw me give a talk at a conference on phase separation in Cambridge last week, this week I’ve been in and out of a conference at Sheffield on thin polymer films, and next week I’m giving talks successively at one conference honouring Dame Julia Higgins and another on the environmental effects of nanoparticles. Yesterday, though, I found myself not amongst scientists, but in the Manchester Business School for a conference on Nanotechnology, Society and Policy.
There were some interesting and provocative talks looking at the empirical evidence for the development, or otherwise, of regional clusters with particular strengths in nanotechnology; under discussion was the issue of whether new industries based on nanotechnologies would inevitably be attracted to existing technological clusters like Silicon Valley and the Boston area, or whether the diverse nature of the technologies grouped under this banner would diffuse this clustering effect.
In the governance section, the University of Twente’s Arie Rip, one of the doyens of European science studies, spoke on the title “Discourse and practice of responsible nanotechnology development”. I must admit that I’d had a preconception that this would be a talk critical of the way so many people had adopted the rhetoric of “responsible development” simply as a way of promoting the subject and deflecting criticism. However, Rip’s message was actually rather more optimistic than this. His view was that, however much such talk begins as rhetoric, it does translate into real practice, and the interactions we’re seeing between technology and society, in the form of public dialogue, discussions between companies and campaigning groups, and the development of codes of practice really are creating “soft structures” and “soft law” that are beginning to have a real, and beneficial, effect on the way these technologies are being introduced.