24 thoughts on “Public Engagement with Nanotechnology”

  1. Even a single Discovery Channel hour-long feature on nanotechnology would go so far to engaging and fulfilling the public outreach mandate – hard to believe it hasn’t been done or that there’s no interest in it. Instead there are little bits and pieces, two minutes here, a news item or an interview there – people are really having to dig for info, and they shouldn’t have to.

    1. Ruth: There have been some major efforts in video/TV outreach, but most of these have involved communicating the technical basics to laypersons. One exception is a Fred Friendly episode that took on some social issues. The Nano-Scale Science and Engineering Network (www.nisenet.org) has also hosted some public forums at its member museums, produced some short plays, etc. But part of my point is that these have come in an ad hoc way through the NNI grantees and do not through any mechanism coordinated by NNI feed back into policy. Dave

      1. Dave, yes I’ve seen the Fred Friendly town halls online (that was how I found Andrew a couple of years ago). They were great, but the outreach has to be much broader and less localized and it has to reach a national audience. Frankly I was quite shocked when I explored the Discovery Channel site and found nothing but bits and pieces on nanotech there. Worse, the situation hasn’t changed since I first started researching nanotech two years ago, and I don’t see anything in the works either. So I agree this needs to be tackled at a national level. And you’re right – what nanotech is is only the starting point – implications for society, ethical and economic issues have to be part of the discussion/exploration of the subject. We’re talking miniseries at least. :)

        1. Ruth: Leo Eaton, an award-winning documentary film maker, is also engaged in developing a PBS-style documentary under the working title Future Tense, collaborating with many people here at ASU (focused in the Law School) on the societal aspects of converging technologies (including nano). Dave

  2. Links to the last two papers cited by Dr. Guston seem to be broken. Can you please fix them? Thanks!

  3. David Guston’s assessment that “the nanotechnocracy has generally cast public engagement in terms entirely instrumental for the success of, well, nanotechnology” is accurate, if understated. In Europe, the United States, Australia and elsewhere the key objective of public ‘engagement’ appears to have been to head off any sort of GMO-style backlash, to create a favourable environment for rapid industry expansion and to build public support for decisions that have already been taken by government and industry.

    Despite the unprecedented lip service to public engagement on nanotechnology, there appears little genuine intention to enable public engagement to inform real decision making about governance or funding, to question the basic rationale of nanotechnology development, or to allow wider publics to actually critique the assumptions, intentions or assertions of the “nanotechnocracy“.

    In its survey of 70 international public engagement initiatives on nanotechnology, the European Commission-backed CIPAST (2008) notes that many rate poorly on Arnstein’s (1969) “ladder of citizen participation”. That is, using Arnstein’s ladder, the researchers conclude that many nanotechnology engagement efforts are more accurately described as “manipulation”, “therapy” or “informing”. Rather than offering “citizen power” nanotechnology engagement generally constitutes “non-participation” or “tokenism”.

  4. The nanotechnocracy point made by David Guston is an eye-opener. Just by examining the choice of words used in the first PCAST report, cited by him: “[t]o sustain this [high level of public] support, …” (italics mine) — it seems apparent that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, nanotechnology public outreach efforts have over the years become entrenched in some form of ironclad nanotechnocratic principles. Viewed from this perspective, public engagement with nanotechnology is nothing but mere lip service, an effort to garner enough support from the public for more research and more funding.

    James E. Grunig, a renowned public relations theorist, would have called this a one-way asymmetrical model of communication, which is characterized by an organization using persuasion to influence audiences to behave as it desires. In this model, there is no research conducted to find out how stakeholders feel about the organization’s decisions.

    A two-way symmetrical model on the other hand, would use communication to negotiate with the public, resolve conflict and promote mutual understanding and respect between the organization and its stakeholders.

    But a note of caution: the two way symmetrical model can quite easily become a two-way asymmetrical model when an organization engages in a two-way communication but uses ambiguous data and dialogue to convince its publics to come around to its way of thinking.

    So at the end of the day, David Guston is quite right in pointing out the fact that
    public engagement efforts need to benefit not just nanotechnology itself, but also the public. I would add that the public also needs to know that their opinions matter, and that they are not just spectators standing on the sidelines watching a series of rapidly moving nanotechnological developments whiz past them. A truly balanced, two-way and symmetric public engagement would see more open dialogues, negotiations and mutual understanding taking place in the forefront between the decision-makers and the general public.

  5. How do you distinguish between technological advancements that require full public debate and those that do not?

    Take the telecommunications revolution (on which this blog is based). I do not recall any significant public engagement on the establishment of the Internet, cell phones, televisions (etc.), and yet those advancements clearly have had, and continue to have, significant ethical, legal, and societal implications.

    Please do not misinterpret my comment: I am not saying that we should not have these discussions with regard to technological advancements like those involving nanomaterials. I just am wondering how it is that we select one set of technological changes for public engagements and ignore others.

    1. Matthew: I would argue that we should not select but rather be nearly comprehensive. And yes, that’ s a big commitment. But it goes hand-in-hand with the interpretation, by Langdon Winner in his 1977 book Autonomous Technology, of “technology as legislation” in that technology requires representative and participatory institutional mechanisms. Regarding telecommunications, in fact, the first Danish-style consensus conference held in the US was organized by the Loka Institute (then run by Dick Sclove) in Massachusetts in 1997 on the issue of telecommunications and democracy. I wrote about this in a research article published in Science, Technology, and Human Values in 1999. Dave

  6. I do not disagree with your “nearly comprehensive” commitment. In fact, I would argue that it is part of the “New Industrial Revolution” (yes, an over-used term) that we are a part of (i.e., the way we think about technological advancements). That said, I note that the Loka Institute only references one Danish-style consensus conference on telecommunications whereas it references three on nanotechnology (and many more on GMOs). (See http://www.loka.org/TrackingConsensus.html).

    So here’s my next question: Do you know of research into the issue of what types of technological advances spark sufficient controversy to require significant public engagement? Perhaps if we identified those push-the-hot-button elements, we might be able to scale down the nearly comprehensive commitment. Otherwise I fear that efforts to engage the public will start to resemble C-SPAN re-runs.

    1. There are some generalizations, e.g., we’re finding with nano that food applications are more sensitive to the public than many other apps, and that speaks to a consistency across nano and GMO. But the real story is that its not so much a characteristic of technologies as such that makes them controversial as it is a set of social factors, often summarized as “trust”, that makes the public more active or more passive. A central observation here was the failure of trust in the BSE controversy in the UK, followed by GMOs.

  7. Both discussions about value to the public and the validity of PE come back to what notice is taken of the findings and what actions are then taken in response.

    Not sure about the US engagement work, but don’t see much changing here in response, though charitably, that may be as much a poor communication issue as anything else. It could be considered that the HSE focus on nano is because the public felt they liked the idea as long as it was safe to use. Though as Georgia says, hard to see the funding focus addressing that taking priority.

    We also need a more sophisticated debate among all actors about the uses and benefits of new technologies which is long overdue here. Most PE responses seem to say ‘if it’s going to help solve our problems then bring it on, but if it’s going to create more than it solves then forget it.’ Fair, if a little blunt!

  8. I wonder sometimes about all this public engagement and public awareness stuff, even though I’ve jumped on the bandwagon.

    Starting with public awareness, are we asking the right questions? The work I’ve seen on public awareness of nanotechnology suggests that people largely remain unaware. hhhmmm…is it possible that the problem has to do with the questions? e.g. Have you heard of nanotechnology? Well, I think it’s possible to know about or have heard about nanotechnology without realizing it or even if you do realize it, you still answer no because you heard about it on a cheesy tv show. (Isn’t the next question always, “How did you hear about it?” Who wants to answer that with the remakes of Bionic Woman or KnightRider?) Or you discount your knowledge ‘via tv show’ as not being knowledge, so you answer: No.

    I was surprised that the recent meta analysis by Terre Satterfield and others associated with the UC Santa Barbara Center for Nanotechnology in Society study, didn’t analyse the questions used for the various polls on public awareness. As far as I can tell, not even the ‘focus’ groups or qualitative studies delve into questions about the knowledge or awareness of nanotechnology that people may already have informally.

    By informal knowledge or awareness, I mean knowing that golf clubs are made with a new technology, that nanobots almost took over the world in the movie, Agent Cody Banks, or that Euoko advertises an Eye Contour Nanolift [cream] with millions of tiny plastic surgeons.

    What I’m trying to say is that by privileging certain kinds of knowledge/awareness, I suspect that we limit public engagement. I’m going to finish now as I’m getting tired and I haven’t entirely thought out this lining of reasoning. Cheers!

    1. I think you are absolutely right that we may not be asking the right questions. With the numerous polls assessing how much people know about “nanotechnology” (or whether they have heard of it), I suspect you could substitute nano for many other things – technologies, products, people – and get similar results. The problem it seems is that people may be aware of or even understand things that affect them, but don’t necessarily have the same language to describe them and articulate their perspective that the “experts” use.

      1. Andrew, I do believe that if you asked most people to explain physics, electricity, etc. they’d wouldn’t be able to. (I confess!) Anyway, I’m glad to see that others have been thinking along the same lines even if I can’t find evidence of it in the literature. Getting back to the language thing here, I have a brief story. I went back to university in the late 80s/early 90s and was working on a questiionnaire for one of my courses. I tested it on a number of people including my father (then in his mid-60s). Before filling it out, he picked out a word in one of the questions and insisted I explain it. The thing is, I knew that he knew quite well what the word meant.

        In his own way he was letting me know that the word was too fancy/academic and he, as a working class stiff, objected. He made his point, I changed the word, and never forgotten the lesson.

  9. Agree Maryse, that’s the limitation of ‘dialogue’ as opposed to wider engagement which includes the web, media and intermediary communication. Nano&me if it ever comes off is designed to be supported by a programme of activities in media of all types and perhaps even through other forums such as Women’s Institutes, supermarkets etc. However whether strategically this is a useful use of their time or someone’s money, I have not yet decided!

    The dilemma with this too is that it can turn into ‘science communication’ and be about PRing the tech if it is not anchored in something really important and useful for the public themselves.

    1. Two things stand out for me, Hillary. (a) My notion of public engagement is more limited than your description of it. I wonder if that’s a consequence of my lack of exposure to public engagement and/or the paucity of the Canadian public engagement scene. The little I’ve been exposed to here in Canada has been along the dialogue/consultation/focus group lines. Thanks for broadening my perspective and I will keep an eye on the Nano&Me project. (b) Your ‘PRing the tech’ comment. I sometimes wonder what would happen if the public engagement process resulted in a thoughtful rejection.

      1. Hi Maryse, I failed to spot your comment before now, sorry. I agree, re ‘thoughtful rejection’. You could argue that GM was thoughtful rejection by the public. The public didn’t see the answers to the questions they asked – basically for more HSE on GM, what they got was more PR. So they said, no, tell me again when you have it. More HSE was developed, better, more societally beneficial product were developed and now, for certain applications, GM is gaining in public acceptance. This is way too simplistic a description of what happened, but actually is the basics of it, in the UK parts of the EU at least.

        I agree, if we had ‘thoughtful rejection’ again, then what!?

        I think there isn’t much of the rather ambitious PE I outlined anywhere, not just Canada, and the jury is out as to its usefulness and value for money, but it is growing here as a real ambition, so maybe there will be more.

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