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Posted: January 9, 2007

Nanotechnology risk discussion - where is the public?

(Nanowerk News) If Mr. Miller hadn't decided to fly to Washington at his own expense in the nick of time last Thursday, the public would have had no voice at a government-sponsored public meeting about nanotechnology.
Nano...what? That's what Larry Miller would have said two years ago, just before he got involved in Madison Area Citizen Consensus Conference in 2005 in Wisconsin and which eventually led him to Washington DC on January 4, 2007 for the U.S. government's first public meeting on potential environmental and health risks of nanotechnologies. There, this former school principal spoke up before a group of academics, manufacturers, and public officials.
"I've heard quite a few comments this afternoon about the public, about your desire to respond to the public, to inform the public and so on. And lo and behold, here I am. I am a citizen – I am not a doctor, I am not a government employee, I am not a corporate head, I'm just a person," he said.
If Mr. Miller hadn t attended, this meeting would have been just one more ritual gathering of scientific and government experts, debating what to do next with little public input. As Mr. Miller pointed out, not much has changed since the 2005 release of the Madison Citizens Conference recommendations, which stressed the need for more funding for nanotechnology environmental health and safety issues, better government communication with the public about potential nanotechnology risks, and more opportunities for average citizens to engage in decisions about nanotechnology development.
Two years later, the citizens are still waiting for scientists, government, and media to address their recommendations. Mr. Miller, along with several experts who testified at the meeting, noted that the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office report that was the focus of the meeting does little to prioritize nanotechnology risk research needs, does not include an action plan for addressing risk issues in a timely fashion, and barely addresses how the government will communicate or engage with the public about these important issues.
Unfortunately, even though the meeting was intended to get public input on how to set priorities for nanotechnology risk research, the NNCO apparently did little to let lay citizens know about it. Mr. Miller learned about this meeting through his involvement in the Citizens' Coalition on Nanotechnology (CCoN), which grew out of the Madison Area Consensus Conference on Nanotechnology. Since getting involved in the Consensus Conference, Mr. Miller has felt that it is his moral obligation to inform other lay citizens about promises and possible dangers of nanotechnology.
Mr. Miller s testimony had a powerful impact. After testifying, Mr. Miller was approached by enthusiastic attendees - scientists and engineers within academia, industry, and government - who congratulated him, noting that even though they had attended countless of meetings like this one, this is the first time they had seen a non-expert citizen testify.
Mr. Miller s statements showed that, contrary to what many experts and specialists believe, there is a public appetite for more information about science and technology, and that average citizens can intelligently engage in societal debates about scientific and technological development. More importantly, his presence at the meeting hopefully reminded the audience and panel members that transparency and public access to policymaking are essential to healthy public deliberation and democracy.
Public comments can be submitted to NNCO through January 31, 2007 at the NNCO's website.
Source: The Citizens' Coalition on Nanotechnology/Nanocafé
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