Giving citizens a voice in the era of nanotechnology

(Nanowerk News) From user communities to school competitions, an EU-funded project has given civil society a stronger voice in the ongoing debate over nanotechnology. The goal is to help ensure societal concerns are incorporated at all levels of decision-making, and that research with the potential to directly benefit citizens is prioritised.
NANODIODE project logo
“The NANODIODE project has been a kind of social dialogue in itself in that it brought together citizens, researchers, industry, workers and policy-makers,” explains project coordinator Pieter van Broekhuizen from IVAM, the Netherlands. “The purpose of this engagement has not been to promote or oppose nanotechnologies, but rather to ensure that societal considerations are heard. Effective governance requires the participation of all stakeholders, whatever their differences.”

Through surveys and various engagement activities, NANODIODE has been able to provide the most accurate picture to date of citizen concerns and put in place tools and platforms that will help ensure that these concerns are heard, ranging from user committees to education strategies. The project has also identified key challenges that must now be addressed, such as the lack of effective integration mechanisms and the dominance of vested interests.

A technology of the future

Nanotechnology has captured the imagination of many because it has potential to revolutionise our material world. Structures manufactured at the nanoscale have been shown to possess amazing strength, flexibility and electrical conductivity, with potential applications ranging from sports and safety equipment through to nanoscale-thin films on computers and glasses. Nanotechnology also offers potential applications in cosmetic products, food packaging and medical equipment.
However, some are concerned about the potential health risks of this relatively new technology, while many in the research community are simply unaware of what the general public actually thinks. NANODIODE’s approach to boosting citizen knowledge and engagement involves examining existing perceptions, increasing awareness and creating new platforms for civic involvement.

Results to build upon

The project began by conducting surveys of perceptions. When asked about the effects that nanotechnology will have on “our overall way of life”, over 70 % of respondents gave a positive response. Citizens were less enthusiastic about nanotech products that are used close to one’s body, such as food, cosmetics or textiles. “These results should encourage policy-makers and technology developers to engage with the public on the direction of nanotechnology research and innovation,” says van Broekhuizen.
Engagement activities such as citizens’ dialogues were held in Austria, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland. Feedback from participating researchers, companies and public authorities suggests that the dialogues were an effective means of learning about citizen preferences.
“I think these fora could be most useful during the early stages of technology development or regulatory policies, when products and policies can still be attuned to the needs and concerns of citizens,” adds van Broekhuizen.
User committees were set up in five European countries to exchange knowledge between users and producers. The aim was to facilitate social impact assessments of innovations that are almost ready for commercialisation. “We found that user committees were useful in helping to identify and address drivers and challenges in the societal uptake of near-to-market research and innovation,” says van Broekhuizen. “To be successful though, user committees have to be very specific; carefully designed and moderated.”
Other new tools intended to help researchers and business take social concerns into full account include a Community of Practice to guide the development of training resources on nanomaterials in the workplace, a best-practice-based education strategy, and an EU-wide school competition that invited pupils to describe how nanotechnologies could contribute to a sustainable European future. A series of short video clips expressing hopes, dreams, expectations and concerns associated with nanotechnologies is also available.
Source: European Commission