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Nanotechnology and Nanoscience The Royal Society

Nanotechnology: Civil Society Groups

Public perception and scenarios

A CS representative commented that the RS/RAEng faced a challenge in attempting to assess the public response to and perception of nanotechnology. A member of the working group said that the process by which this would be done involved two workshops, run independently by a market research company, and a web forum in early 2004. Anyone is free to send in comments via the website at any stage of the study. In response to the question of whether this is sufficient resource, the working group was keen to stress that this aspect was only a small, but important, part of its work, helping them to answer one of their six terms of reference – ‘to identify what environmental, health and safety, ethical or societal implications or uncertainties may arise from the use of the technology, both current and future’. A member of the working group made the point that it is not attempting to run the nanotechnology parallel of ‘GM Nation’; rather, it sees its work as the start of an ongoing process. It was also noted that that the group intended to consider recommending how to further engage the public in decision making on nanotechnology. The views of the CS groups were important in this regard.

One attendee said, and several others agreed, that the media would be very important in determining public attitudes to nanotechnology, and that, however the public perceive nanotechnology, the scientific community will have to engage with it as such.

Generic issues that were of concern to CS groups and the public were discussed. These included control of science by the private sector, trust in scientists to live up to ethical standards, and the lack of voice people had in decision-making about science.

This led on to discussion of ‘scenarios’ that might be developed to introduce and communicate nanotechnology to members of the public. A CS representative made the distinction between open and closed systems of innovation in terms of scenario-building. An open system is characterised by pluralist systems of government, public peer review, and adaptive regulatory systems. Examples of open vs closed systems are Linux vs Microsoft, the Soil Association vs Monsanto. The Human Genome Project was highlighted as another example of an ‘open’ system. The potential analogy for nanotechnology was discussed, but it was difficult to think of examples in this area. The working group and some CS representatives agreed that is was encouraging that some sectors of business were now acknowledging the fact that open systems were preferable in that they fostered diversity and innovation.

A number of ways in which scenarios might be constructed were suggested by CS representatives:

  • Disruptive technology - to explore the likely impacts on existing technologies, eg in ICTs or pharmaceuticals, etc. on the assumption that nanotechnologies become disruptive.

  • Global impact - to explore the impact on poverty in the world by considering issues such as sustainability, distribution of wealth, geographic impact, economic growth, ethics, power, and democracy.

  • Open scenario - to explore issues that might arise if intellectual property rights were not exerted e.g. human genome project used this kind of approach.

  • Closed scenario - to explore issues of power, given market assumptions based on development of the technology by a few powerful private sector interests.

CS representatives also raised specific scenarios relating to nanotechnology:

  • Eradication of disability – for example cochlear implants to improve hearing, improved eyesight for soldiers. A CS representative argued that this was a concern with respect to nanotechnology, particularly in US policies that focus on ‘improving human performance’, and that such technologies contribute to societal expectation and judgements of what is or is not normal. A member of the working group suggested that, given that these types of improvements (eg glasses, contact lenses) have existed for a while, it could be argued that nanotechnology did not necessarily pose any new ethical dimensions in this area. The working group also suggested that people could be said to have a choice as to whether or not to use these technologies.

Given the fact that none of the attendees were experts in this area, the working group were alerted to the need to seek additional input from a representative of a disability rights organisation.

  • Sensors – for example the use of micro and nanosensors in agriculture, which could collect information about farmers' activities and contribute to increased control of their activities. However, it was acknowledged that many farmers are already highly computerised (eg connected to satellite systems).

  • Toxicity- the issue of toxicity of nanoparticles was raised as an area in which more research is needed, particularly in terms of whether the regulatory system is sufficient.

  • ‘Grey goo’. The image of nano robots that can self-replicate has been in the media, and in popular science fiction such as Michael Crichton’s novel Prey.

  • Military uses


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The Royal Society 2003
The Royal Academy of Engineering