Communicating nanoethics - report

(Nanowerk News) The 4th annual ObservatoryNano report on Ethical and Societal Aspects of Nanotechnology report focuses on Communicating Nanoethics. The report aims to contribute to current EU policy making on Responsible Research and Innovation. A key aspect of this is two-way communication between citizens and EU institutions. As a resource for policy makers, this report offers insights and policy options resulting from analysis of different national public dialogue and engagement activities and their impact on public opinion and policy making. Policy makers interested in reflecting on the choices they make can gain deeper understanding from a review of risk and science communication literature included in this report. As a case study of a dialogue instrument, the present report includes results of the testing of the ObservatoryNano Ethics Toolkit. This is an instrument for scientists engaging with the public about ethical and societal aspects of their research. This toolkit and other instruments could contribute to responsible (nano) research and innovation.
Executive Summary
Currently, how to interpret and implement "Responsible Research and Innovation" is high on the EU and international policy making agenda. Two-way communication with European citizens about emerging technologies with major potential societal consequences is a prominent aspect. In 2010, the European Commission published a roadmap for communication about nanotechnology with European citizens (Bonazzi, 2010). The present report aims to contribute to policy making by analysing national dialogue and engagement activities. These have been held in several EU member and associate states in the last decade. Could past experience with different dialogue instruments be useful to European policy makers? The ObservatoryNano has developed such an instrument: the Ethics Toolkit. Its usefulness for specific types of dialogues is discussed in this report.
What does the Commission propose to do? The European roadmap on nanocommunication introduces "a new communication model that relates to citizens' concerns and needs". In subsequent dialogue and engagement "the communication model's efficacy to deliver its messages to millions of citizens" will be tested. Aims include "increasing the consensus between stakeholders, society and policy makers on EC decision making about nanotechnology; and strengthening the image of the EC as an impartial, transparent and trustworthy communicator on nanotechnology". The activities planned in the roadmap should culminate in an electronic platform NODE for interactive communication with millions of EU citizens about nanotechnology.
Nationals of EU Member States are EU citizens since the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992; therefore they have political rights at EU level. The lack of adequate two-way communication between citizens and EU institutions hampers the exercise of these rights. Setting up such a platform could be a valuable solution, if the audience involved is addressed as citizens rather than mere laity, consumers or stakeholders.
However, the choice to focus on nanotechnology could complicate matters. National dialogues demonstrate that nanotechnology may be too abstract to engage masses of lay persons. Experts advise focusing on particular sensitive aspects or applications of nanotechnology. Consequences for citizens are easier to grasp of e.g. nanotechnology in food, cosmetics and other consumer products. More limited stakeholder groups are interest in occupational safety and life cycle and environmental aspects. Currently, policy makers prefer specific stakeholder dialogue in closed working groups. The results should be reported to the public transparently. New broad public dialogue processes focus on policy dilemmas close to citizens' concerns and interests, such as energy policies and healthcare. Key enabling technologies may be addressed in these broader dialogues.
Activities aimed at contributions to government and governance and awareness raising have apparently been more effective than attempts at developing new forms of direct democracy. In policy making on priorities in research and innovation, the triple helix of research, industry and government remains dominant. Government bodies making policies on regulation and risk governance are institutionalising the involvement of stakeholders. Experiments with direct democracy had more limited success and may depend on the political climate.
What instruments can be used in such dialogue activities? As a case study, experiences with the ObservatoryNano Ethics Toolkit are highlighted. This is an attempt to inspire and provide a language for non-ethicists working with new ethically sensitive technology. Relevant concepts are offered to facilitate reflection. This toolkit is primarily intended for a scientific audience and has been tested on such groups. The toolkit could also be adapted for communicating nanoethics to different audiences and in education. It is not the sole solution to all issues related to responsible research and innovation.
Lessons can be learned from academic studies on risk and science communication. Policy makers aiming to influence public understanding should first understand this public understanding of science. Communication should address distinct audiences differently. E.g. men/women, religious/non-religious are predisposed in different positive or negative ways towards science and technology. Communicating nanotechnology should take into account the risk society concept of Ulrich Beck. In communication about science and technology, four conceptual models of the public are distinguished. In two models, the main focus is delivery of information to the public. A "deficit model", assumes that the public needs to be educated to appreciate the benefits of science and technology. A contextual model differentiates between audiences and assumes a more active role of the audience. The Ethics Toolkit could play a role in this second type of awareness raising activities. Two other models focus mainly on engaging the public. The lay expertise model emphasises non-traditional expertise found among groups in the public. This model appears to be dominant in stakeholder dialogues for nanorisk governance. It is also inherent in the ObservatoryNano Nanometer, a self-assessment tool for evaluating ethical and societal aspects of nano-enabled products. Finally, public engagement exercises aim to involve the general public in policy making. Academics have different views on "the public": laity, consumers, stakeholders or citizens. Views also differ on the appropriate timing of public engagement. The European Commission could consider these aspects in developing its communication strategy.
Currently, nanotechnology is maturing and the bulk of investment is shifting from public to private funders. At the same time, the political debate at EU and national levels focuses increasingly on risk governance and regulation of nanomaterials and nanotechnologies at the work floor, in products and in the environment. This suggests that nanocommunication initiatives taken by the European Commission could be focused on regulation. The European Commission could encourage industry and research organisations to engage in dialogue on nanotechnology in sensitive products. ObservatoryNano tools including the Ethics Toolkit and Nanometer are especially suitable for such localised dialogues.
In general, EU policy on responsible research and innovation could benefit from one or more public information and communication platforms or observatories. These should bring together relevant information from different sources, extract policy options and bring them to the attention of relevant bodies such as the European Commission, the European Parliament STOA office, European Group on Ethics and international cooperation platforms.
Source: ObservatoryNano