A guest blog by Craig Cormick.

Over the past decade there has been a significant growth in public engagement activities relating to nanotechnology and when you look across all the data being generated you can learn a lot about how the public view the risks and benefits of the technology. That’s probably not news for anybody who follows this blog. But what might be news is to look closely at who is driving these engagements. Is it the public? Generally no.

The majority of the public are still rather unengaged on nanotechnology, and tend to think it’s all rather good (not including food). Media coverage is predominantly positive and concern-stories don’t get much traction. And yet there is a lot of funding going into public engagement of nanotechnology – so engagement has to happen.

The premise behind most government funding of nanotechnology engagement world-wide is that we need to avoid a replication of what happened with Genetically Modified Foods, and so the errors of that public debate need to be addressed early in the nanotechnology debate. But is that a valid premise? Nanotechnologies and Genetic Modification (GM) technologies, while similar in some ways, are significantly different too. Most importantly GM technology was a “black hat technology” (which was its starting position in the publics’ eyes, as a risky thing, and there was little impact that positive information and engagement campaigns had on that) while nanotechnology is a “white hat technology” (and likewise negative information campaigns are having little impact on changing its initial perception of being more beneficial than risky).

So now let’s look at the engagements that are happening and who attends them. The majority of activities involve bringing a range of experts and the public together in some manner, or bringing lay publics together, to discuss nanotechnology issues, with research being conducted into what and how and why the public react to the engagement activity. That’s all good, and activities are getting better and better at developing two-way learnings. But there are publics and there are publics, and most engagement activities recruit people who self-select to attend, and as a result are more likely to represent those with some interest in the technology or its impacts already. So you could argue that a lot of activities are engaging with those people who least need to be engaged with, as they are already engaged.

So issue number 1: Most engagement activities favour the engaged, and there are not enough methodologies to engage with the broader unengaged people in our communities.

That brings us to the types of engagement activities happening. A useful GM analogy to use here is the difference between laboratory trials, greenhouse trials and field trials. Many nanotechnology engagements are the equivalent of laboratory trials – being conducted in artificial environments (focus groups, deliberative dialogues and citizens juries) that, while providing useful data, might not be easily transferable to the real world.

There are other engagements that we might consider greenhouse trials, such as online forums, café scientifics and so on, that are much closer to the real world that most people live in, but still aren’t quite it.

Then there are some good examples of engagements that are what we might call field trials (community group meetings and shopping center interviews), but not many.

Issue number 2 is the need to find engagements that replicate real world experiences as much as possible for the broad unengaged publics, both to allow research into real world experiences, and to provide modelling that people might be able to transfer to their homes and work places etc.

And this raises issue number 3, which is that while there is an expectation that people who take part in engagement activities – whether they be laboratory experiments, greenhouse trials or field trials – they will take their new knowledge or attitudes and go forth and multiply it within the broader community, there is very little data to demonstrate whether this actually happens or not.

So while it is useful to pool all the research data being obtained and make meta-analysis of the findings, as happens regularly, it might be more helpful at the moment to look for gaps in the data and then find ways to fill them. And that, I suggest, is the next major challenge not just for those undertaking public engagement activities, but for anyone seeking an effective way to come to good understandings of how the broad public actually relate to the risks and benefits of new technologies.

Dr Craig Cormick is Manager of Public Awareness and Community Engagement within the National Enabling Technologies Strategy in the Australian Department of Innovation.