A guest blog by David H. Guston, Director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University.

The President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST) has recently put the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) through its biennial paces.  Launched in 2000 by President Clinton, authorized in 2003 by the 21st Century Nanotechnology R&D Act, and reviewed in 2005 and 2008 by PCAST (yes, an odd vision of “biennial”), the NNI is now a decade old.  For better and for ill, it is starting to show its age.

First, full disclosure.  I direct a Nano-scale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC), funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under the NNI to investigate the societal aspects of nanotechnologies.  So my Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (CNS-ASU) gets a bit more than $1M per year from NNI.  Second, as can be seen in the recent PCAST review document [PDF, 4.8 MB], I also testified before the working group that produced the report.  Third, one of the PCAST members is my college roommate’s mother (but that’s *not* why I was called to testify!).


Since the early days of NNI, as well as since the 2003 Act, public engagement with nanotechnology was supposed to be on the agenda.  The early reports by NSF on the societal aspects of nanotechnology refer to the productive role that public engagement can play, and the relevant passage from the 2003 Act 2(B)(10)(d) authorizes:

“public input and outreach to be integrated into the Program by the convening of regular and ongoing public discussions, through mechanisms such as citizens’ panels, consensus conferences, and educational events, as appropriate.”

Bluntly, however, public engagement has not been implemented as robustly as it might have been.

In May 2006, the NNI offered a promising if tardy start with a large workshop on public participation, organized by the National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office (NNCO) and sponsored by the Nano-scale Science, Engineering and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee.  The two-day program generated considerable excitement among the larger-than-expected number of attendees.  Yet, while the presentations from the workshop are available on line, no report on the workshop seems to have ever been finalized for distribution on the NNI website.

The major messages of that meeting, as well as almost all relevant scholarship in public engagement in science and technology over the last decade and a half, are that:

  • Communication between the lay-public (which is not monolithic) and the scientific community (which isn’t, either) needs to be two-way.
  • Such communication needs to be not just about scientific facts but also about technological applications and social values.
  • And the purpose of this communication must not be limited to the faulty formula of “more knowledge on the part of the public will mean more support for research and technological applications.”

Nevertheless, the nanotechnocracy has generally cast public engagement in terms entirely instrumental for the success of, well, nanotechnology.

The first PCAST (2005:38) report [PDF, 4 MB], e.g. argued directly that:

“[t]o sustain this [high level of public] support, the scientific community and the Federal agencies that fund scientific research must communicate more directly with the public, not through surrogates such as the entertainment industry…. Through the NNI website and through outreach activities at the NSF-funded centers and DOE user facilities, the NNI has established channels to communicate with members of various stakeholder groups, including the broader public.”

Similarly, recommendation 6.1 of PCAST (2008:34-35) [PDF, 1.3 MB] was to:

“[d]emonstrate more clearly to the public the value of nanotechnology and NNI-supported research and development.”

The first report (PCAST 2005:38) even attempted a pre-emptive defense of its practices, reporting that its working group “has held open meetings focusing on nanotechnology issues, which have provided the public with several opportunities to provide input.”  But the ability of the general public – as opposed to organized and special interests – to participate substantively in “open meetings” of executive agency committees is highly constrained, which is likely why the passage in the 2003 Act cited above calls for open, interactive public forums like citizens’ panels and consensus conferences.

Taking guidance from this specific language, CNS-ASU has made public engagement a centerpiece of its activities.  In Spring 2008, CNS-ASU organized the most ambitious public engagement activity around nanotechnology in the US, the National Citizens’ Technology Forum (NCTF).  Modeled after the Danish consensus conference but distributed across six locales across the United States, the NCTF on “nanotechnologies and human enhancement” demonstrated that a high-quality deliberative activity can be organized at a national scale in the US, and that a representative selection of lay-citizens can come to discerning judgments about nanotechnologies while they are still emergent (Hamlett et al. 2008, PDF 184 KB).  While there are reasonable concerns about the quality of the particular online component of the process (Delborne et al. 2009, PDF, 160 KB) and the demands that such intensive activities place on citizens (Kleinman et al. 2009), the NCTF process is a sound demonstration upon which to build future citizen deliberations (Philbrick and Barandiaran 2009).

In other words, large-scale public engagement activities around nanotechnology are ready for prime time.  As we move into a next decade of large-scale funding and the first forays of regulation, it is time for the NNI to follow through on the early promise of its vision of public engagement in nanotechnology for the benefit of the public, and not just for the benefit of nanotechnology.

This week, the NNI is holding a workshop on Risk Management Methods & Ethical, Legal, and Societal Implications of Nanotechnology, which includes a 15 minute slot for public comment.  David Guston will not be there – the workshop clashes with Passover – AM

David H Guston