Monday, May 14, 2007

Should we get engaged?
[This is the pre-edited version of my Crucible column for the June issue of Chemistry World.]

In 2015 the BBC broadcast a documentary called ‘Whatever happened to nanotechnology?’ Remember the radical predictions being made in 2006, it asked, such as curing blindness? Well, things didn’t turn out to be so simple. On the other hand, nor have the forecasts of nano-doom come to pass. Instead, there’s simply been plenty of solid, incremental science that has laid the groundwork for a brighter technological future.

This scenario, imagined in a European Union working paper, “Strategy for Communication Outreach in Nanotechnology”, sounds a little unlikely, not least because television is increasingly less interested in stories with such anodyne conclusions. But this, the paper suggests, is the optimistic outcome: one where nanotech has not been derailed by inept regulation, industrial mishaps and public disenchantment.

The object of the exercise is to tell the European Commission how to promote “appropriate communication in nanotechnology.” The present working paper explains that “all citizens and stakeholders, in Europe and beyond, are welcome to express comments, opinions and suggestions by end June 2007”, which will inform a final publication. So there’s still time if you feel so inclined.

One of the striking things about this paper is that it implies one now has to work frightfully hard, using anything from theatre to food, to bridge the divide between science and the public – and all, it seems, so that the public doesn’t pull the plug through distrust. If that’s really so, science is in deep trouble. But it may be in the marketplace, not the research lab, that public perception really holds sway.

What, however, is “appropriate communication” of technology?

Previous EU documents have warned that nanotechnology is poorly understood and difficult to grasp, and that its benefits are tempered by risks that need to be openly stated and investigated. “Without a serious communication effort,” one report suggests, “nanotechnology innovations could face an unjust negative public reception. An effective two-way dialogue is indispensable, whereby the general public’s views are taken into account and may be seen to influence [policy] decisions”.

This is, of course, the current mantra of science communication: engagement, not education. The EU paper notes that today’s pubic is “more sceptical and less deferential”, and that therefore “instead of the one-way, top down process of seeking to increase people’s understanding of science, a two-way iterating dialogue must be addressed, where those seeking to communicate the wonders of their science also listen to the perceptions, concerns and expectations of society.”

And so audiences are no longer lectured by a professor but discuss the issues with panels that include representatives from Greenpeace. There’s much that is productive and progressive in that. But in his bracingly polemical book The March of Unreason (OUP, 2005), Lord Dick Taverne challenges its value and points out that ‘democracy’ is a misplaced ideal in science. “Why should science be singled out as needing more democratic control when other activities, which could be regarded as equally ‘elistist’ and dependent on special expertise, are left alone?” he asks. Why not ‘democratic art’?

Taverne’s critique is spot-on. There now seems to be no better sport than knocking ‘experts’ who occasionally get things wrong, eroding the sense that we should recognize expertise at all. This habitual skepticism isn’t always the result of poor education – or rather, it is often the result of an extremely expensive but narrow one. The deference of yore often led to professional arrogance; but today’s universal skepticism makes arrogance everyone’s prerogative.

Another danger with ‘engagement’ is that it tends to provide platforms for a narrow spectrum of voices, especially those with axes to grind. The debate over climate change has highlighted the problems of insisting on ‘balance’ at the expense of knowledge or honesty. Nanotechnology, however, has been one area where ‘public engagement’ has often been handled rather well. A three-year UK project called Small Talk hosted effective public debates and discussions on nanotechnology while gathering valuable information about what people really knew and believed. Its conclusions were rather heartening. People’s attitudes to nanotechnology are not significantly different from their attitudes to any new technology, and are generally positive. People are less concerned about specific risks than about the regulatory structures that contain it. The public perception of risk, however, continues to be a pitfall: many now think that a ‘safe’ technology is one for which all risks have been identified and eliminated. But as Taverne points out, such a zero-risk society “would be a paradise only for lawyers.”

The EU’s project is timely, however, for the UK’s Council for Science and Technology, an independent advisory body to the government, has just pronounced in rather damning terms on the government’s efforts to ‘engage’ with the social and ethical aspects of nanotech. Their report looks at progress on this issue since publication of a nanotech review in 2004 prepared for the government by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering “The report led to the UK being seen as a world leader in its engagement with nanotechnologies”, it say. “However, today the UK is losing that leading position.”

It attributes this mainly to a failure to institute a coherent approach to the study of nano-toxicology, the main immediate hazard highlighted by the 2004 review. “In the past five years, only £3m was spent on toxicology and the health and environmental impacts of nanomaterials”, it says, and “there is as yet little conclusive data concerning the long-term environmental fate and toxicity of nanomaterials.”

Mark Welland, one of the expert advisers on this report, confirms that view. “The 2004 recommendations have been picked up internationally”, he says, “but the UK government has one almost nothing towards toxicology.” Like others, he fears that inaction could open the doors to a backlash like that against genetically modified organisms or the MMR vaccine.

If that’s so, maybe we do need good ideas about how to communicate. But that’s only part of an equation that must also include responsible industrial practice, sound regulation, broad vision, and not least, good research


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