Nanotechnology and social inclusion - fear shouldn't drive public opinion

(Nanowerk Spotlight) As nanotechnologies are increasingly becoming the focus of public interests and concerns, there is a risk that public opinion is shaped by either fearmongering or unrealistic expectations. Public engagement in policy making, i.e. having a say in decisions about technological developments that will affect people's lives significantly, should be based on objective information and facts. Public engagement is one of the processes that allows for increased social inclusion. Engagement seeks to achieve increased two-way information flow and knowledge exchange as well as increase overall technological literacy.
Interests are in potential benefits for society particularly in areas of health care and environment. The cause of concerns and the factors driving them are complex, but deliberative engagement processes are shown to allow for improved public input to policy, research and product development, to diminish concerns and result in products and processes that better suit public needs.
Previously, we have reported about a German approach to embedding nanotechnology developments in society and covered the social aspects of nanotechnology in Europe. Today, we are showcasing an example from Down Under.
The Australian government has initiated an exemplary process of social inclusion for nanotechnology with the Australian Office of Nanotechnology's (AON) "Social Inclusion and Engagement Workshop Report", conducted last December. It remains to be seen, though, if this was a one-off effort or if they will follow through with more activities like this.
Based on AON’s investigations into best practice nationally and internationally in the field of public participation, it put forward four potential principles that could assist in guiding engagement across stakeholders that deal with nanotechnologies. These were that public engagement should be:
Deliberative – emphasises mutual learning and dialogue
Inclusive – involves a wide range of citizens and groups whose views would not otherwise have a direct bearing on policy deliberation
Substantive – topics selected that are appropriate to exchange
Consequential – makes a material difference to the governance of new technologies.
Among the participants from industry, government, research, community and activist groups, there appeared to be a clear agreement within each sector to support advancements towards greater social inclusion and engagement by industry.
While this was an Australian exercise, it probably can be assumed that the results in other geographies would be the same or similar:
Industry Stakeholders raised the following key points
  • the challenge of identifying the risks in a very wide application of nanotechnologies across different industry sectors and within different phases of development;
  • the challenge of separating between the benefits and risks of nanotechnologies – the feeling was that fear was driving the community’s response to nanotechnology;
  • the need for consistency in nomenclature;
  • the need for regulation;
  • the need for information/public participation to manage fear about nanotechnology;
  • the importance of transparency and openness in relation to nanotechnologies; and
  • acknowledged that involving the community makes good business sense - and part of their corporate social responsibility.
  • However there was also a sentiment that Australian industry could not “stand still” because of the unknowns about nanotechnology – and that systems and processes needed to be put in place to minimize these risks. Participants felt that education played a role in showing a balance between risks and benefits of nanotechnologies. These participants valued early involvement but saw social inclusion and engagement as the responsibility of not only their industry sector.
    Government stakeholders raised the following key points
  • the complexity of developing regulation that made sense to a wide range of applications of nanotechnologies in various industries;
  • the need to build community trust and the role of information and greater involvement as critical to the acceptance of nanotechnologies in Australia.
  • Participants appeared committed to progressing public participation in the sectors they represented.
    Research stakeholders raised the following key points
  • the challenges of securing funding for specific product developments, while also needing to understand the concerns of the community and identifying the impacts that nanotechnologies might have on communities through the products being developed;
  • the need for scientists to become more knowledgeable and willing to take on more social inclusion and engagement in research; and
  • the need for more rigour and evaluation of social inclusion and engagement processes.
  • The community representatives raised the following key points
  • the necessity of ensuring employees and product users are safe and their concerns that current regulations did not protect people from potential risks;
  • the necessity of regulation;
  • the need for more information and public participation in the nanotechnology debate; and
  • the inherent rights of the public to make informed choices about the products that they use – which may include labelling in many cases.
  • The AON report points out that there appeared to be many approaches and tools that each stakeholder grouping considered as working in their sectors in terms of social inclusion and engagement:
    What works in the industry sector appears to be the sharing of information between researchers, industry and government via networking, conferences etc. However the community seems to be included only through established committees and there was the acknowledgement that only those that can understand science would understand what was happening. There was also the suggestion that industry needed to review and broaden its current approaches to social inclusion and engagement of the broader public.
    The research sector acknowledged it hadn’t built relationships with the community sector and that it needed to take a more concerted approach to involving the community in research. It identified a process for greater inclusion.
    The group looking at the government sector identified that consultative committees had their place but that there are limits on their capacity to be broadly representative. The group recognised that Government therefore needs to be flexible in taking on different approaches that acknowledge the diversity of the community, and also that the key, whichever mechanisms are used, was for there to be a commitment to genuine engagement.
    The community sector identified a wide range of approaches that were currently working. They held the view that there was basic information that needed to be ongoing in its promotion and distribution versus specific approaches being used for specific areas of nanotechnology. They also acknowledged that public participation didn’t mean that everyone needed to be informed and involved in nanotechnologies but that it was a question of giving people a choice and access to being involved.
    There was a strong sense among the sectors that there needed to be an obvious commitment from government to actively involve and engage with them and the wider public in the development of regulation around nanotechnology. It appears that this is fundamental to building bridges between the community sector and government, industry and research sectors.
    Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
    Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
    Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
    Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
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