A guest blog by Barbara Herr Harthorn, Director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California Santa Barbara.

A couple of weeks back, my colleague David Guston wrote here about engaging the public on nanotechnology.   In his piece he gave an excellent overview of the US government’s activities – or relative lack of them – on public engagement in this area.  But I also felt that some questions on why we should encourage public participation in nanotechnology in the first place – and how the government should think about approaching this – were left unanswered.  So to continue where David left off, I would like to explore these questions a little further.

To start with, why do public deliberation on nanotechnology?  The simplest answers are because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s a useful thing to do.

Let’s take those one at a time:

Public participation is the right thing to do

Public participation in nanotechnology is the right thing to do because it’s a legal mandate – incorporation of some element of public participation is a required element of the Congressional authorization for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). It also enables citizens to participate more fully in the democratic process.

The normative view is that within a democracy it is right and proper to have all affected parties involved in decisions that may affect them (Fiorino 1989). Such democratic values may indeed compete with technocratic values, but the “participatory turn” (Whitmarsh 2009) with its resultant legal basis for participation is now an established fact in many countries.

If you accept that potentially affected publics have a right to know, at least about risks, the issue of how to gain their ‘informed consent’ to those risks is a complex ethical matter because nanotechnology involves an entire class of technologies that span almost all industries, and the potentially affected include most of society. Public deliberation is one method for achieving informed consent in this upstream context, although a comprehensive public deliberation effort in the US would necessarily be extensive in scope given the potential ubiquity of distribution of nano materials, products, and waste.

Both Centers for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS) established by the National Science Foundation – David’s at Arizona State University (ASU) and the one I direct at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) – have engaged in public deliberation exercises.  But efforts to date have been on a small scale—they’ve necessarily included a very limited number of participants, and have focused only on a limited subset of the spectrum of applications (CNS-UCSB’s 10 public deliberation workshops in 2007 and 2009 focused on nanotech energy/environment applications or health/enhancement applications; CNS-ASU’s 6 workshops in 2007 looked exclusively at human enhancement technologies). On-line deliberation and the linking of selective face-to-face deliberation results with comprehensive survey data for validating opinions and views in national samples offer some potential methods for future larger scale nano deliberations, as long as diverse publics are included. We are pursuing both strategies on a pilot basis at CNS-UCSB.

In terms of public participation in the NNI, fulfillment of the normative purpose would mean allocating sufficient resources to conduct a meaningful public deliberation effort that is iterative and involves both lay persons and scientists.  Even though this might take some resources away from technological R&D in the short term, this would be in the interest of creating “socially sustainable technologies” (i.e., development of nanotechnologies that will be good for society in the long term).

Public deliberation is a useful thing to do

In addition to the normative reasons cited above, public participation is potentially useful for both instrumental and substantive purposes (Fiorino 1989). Instrumental here means that public participation contributes to other goals – for example, building community support for local development; or creating a basis of trust that will sustain support in the event of risk events.  Substantive contributions refer to the actual knowledge and learning that can take place through deliberative processes, particularly the contribution of local knowledge to successful outcomes – for example, better understanding of more useful applications of multi-purpose devices.

There are two foundational resources that have laid the groundwork for the current state of knowledge about this, both of them publications based on National Research Council panels:

Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society (Stern and Fineberg 1996) made the case for how making risks understandable to the public and avoiding risk controversies and conflict involve far more than just translating scientific knowledge (e.g. risk assessment). In it, they set out the main framework for “analytic-deliberative” decision making as a process that includes both analysis and public deliberation, brings lay and scientific experts together in an iterative process that promotes co-learning not just for particular decisions, and, when done well, can lead to better outcomes in terms of a number of important criteria.

Much more recently, in Dec 2008 Dietz and Stern’s National Research Council volume Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making, reported on a panel specifically convened to address questions of whether public participation in environmental decision making was beneficial to the process and outcomes or if, as some detractors have argued, involving lay people in complex technical decision making slowed or even derailed the process. They concluded that when conducted properly, public participation as a part of government or private sector organizations for assessment, planning and decision making (i.e., not political participation for voting or forming interest groups) contributes to the quality, legitimacy and capacity of decision making.

Getting back to nanotechnology, the NNI has not yet specified the form that public participation should take.

Key aspects of successful public participation and deliberation have been shown to include:

  • “early and often” (meaning that you need to begin the process early in development and continue interaction often);
  • procedural fairness (even if publics don’t agree with agencies, if they feel they’ve been treated openly, respectfully and fairly, this leads to demonstrably better outcomes, such as less litigation) (Chess and Purcell 1999);
  • well managed process, including a clear purpose, adequate resources, genuine commitment of participants to the process, timely outputs, and a focus on learning; and
  • implementation that includes breadth of participants, intensity of interaction (particularly face-to-face), and integration of scientific expertise (Dietz & Stern 2008).

Thus, in addition to the political will to include participation as an element of the NNI, there is considerable basis for asserting that public participation in nanotech R&D can be beneficial to the quality, legitimacy and capacity of the NNI. Public participation in nanotechnology development that:

  1. addresses needs and concerns of publics (and publics for this purpose would include businesses, NGOs, and communities, as well as individuals),
  2. reduces mistrust between stakeholders (e.g., academic or industry labs and surrounding communities), and
  3. results in all participants (including scientists) being better informed about the issues and about one another, and produces meta-learning about participatory processes

would be a highly successful outcome for the NNI. On the other hand, one enduring and detrimental feature of public participation efforts has been the “reluctance of government to grant influence to participatory efforts,” and another common cause of poor public participation outcomes is when participation is aimed at “boosterism” for an agency or program (Chess and Purcell 1999).

Clearly, public deliberation in the NNI, if it is to be effective, needs to take heed of these hard-won lessons, and knowledgeable researchers will be reluctant to take part in an effort that is likely to fail for such predictable reasons.



Chess, Caron and Kristen Purcell. 1999. Public participation and the environment: Do we know what works? Env Sci & Tech 33(16): 2685-2692.

Dietz, Thomas and Paul C. Stern, Eds. 2008. Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making, Panel on Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making, National Research Council. Washington: National Academies Press.

Fiorino, Daniel. 1989. Environmental risks and democratic process: A critical review. Columbia Journal of Environmental Law 14:501-547.

Stern, Paul D. & Harvey V. Fineberg, Eds. 1996. Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society. Committee on Risk Characterization, commission on Behavioral and social Sciences and Education. National Research Council. Washington: National Academies Press.

Whitmarsh, Lorraine. 2009. Review of Dietz and Stern, Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making. Environmental Science & Policy 12:1069-1072.