A few Small Issues about Public Engagement on Nanotechnology

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.

4 thoughts on “A few Small Issues about Public Engagement on Nanotechnology”

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. I think the issue of engaging the “hard to reach” public is a crucial point- most of the times, as you say, we manage to engage the engaged. I am currently involved in a project called Nanochannels (www.nanochannels.eu), and its aim is precisely to engage a large number of different stakeholders and general public in the nanotech debate. The project is using a mix of conventional media (printed supplements in newspapers- namely in the guardian, el mundo and corriere della sera), microsites (the guardian and el mundo have a nanotech microsite), radio programs (radio24), and social media (facebook, twitter, linkedin). Users can comment in all the online platforms and several online pools are also made. In addition the project will host school debates (with students involved in the debate, and experts invited) and a big round table event in UK (Jan 2012). The project started with an online survey and various focus groups. I think it is going to be interesting to see the outcome of this project as it is an attempt to really reach out, using a variety of communication methods.

  2. I enjoyed reading your article. You have raised key issues which need to be addressed. I may also add that another key issue is for scientists to dedicate research and funding on how to engage the wider society (the non-scientific thinking society). The national academies traditionally fill this role but even within them there are disagreements on the credibility of scientific practices at the nano-level. After GM, societies have become so suspicious of what scientists do in their labs (although I believe that the GM engagement and discussion was not a failure —scientists just did not win the engagement then and now but perhaps later in the future). The unengaged public will remain so; unengaged, for 2 main reasons. (i) the gains of nanoscience is not as clear cut as the discovery of say the vaccine against small pox. They want concrete evidence before belief is exercised. (ii) nanoscience is not simple science, it is hard to describe. A large majority of the unengaged public are not scientists, they have other issues, yes like the economy and personal finances, to devote time to. The urgency of public engagement is simply coming at a wrong time; its importance is attenuated by politics, global instabilities, natural disasters and other private issues.
    For a poll see who is talking “nano” on facebook or other social media. Very few people are signed-up in the nano groups and even for those that are signed-up very few are participating in the dialogues.
    I remain hopeful though that public attention will be turned on the nano-debate sometime down in time.
    Cheers, – Brando

  3. Any scientific improvement or invention or discovery would create issues once it is applied out side of the lab. Until they start to accept it there would be people who would object it all the time.

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