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Nanotechnology and Nanoscience The Royal Society

Nanotechnology: Civil Society Groups

Systems of Government

The extent to which the current system of democracy is effective in determining the development of new technologies was discussed. The view from some Civil Society (CS) representatives was that science appears to be uniquely insulated from mechanisms of democracy, resulting in a lack of public participation in the development of technology and therefore a lack of public control of it. The increased control of science by private companies was highlighted by CS representatives as a particular concern. One attendee commented that if the democratic process worked, the specifics of the technology were unimportant. Another thought that in certain areas, for example health spending, the democratic process worked better than in others. A member of the working group enquired as to whether the power of the market and of the consumer to choose would be considered a democratic alternative to a government-controlled oversight process. A CS representative argued that markets were not democratic, given that people with less purchasing power had less rights in a marketplace. This was a particular problem in the Third World.

The global impacts of technology choice were discussed at length, with the feeling that developing countries repeatedly missed out on the benefits of technology. It was argued by a CS representative that, especially since the industrial revolution, technology waves have been driven by those with financial or political power. Because of the lack of accountability of those who develop industrial technologies each successive wave has further widened the gap between rich and poor. Another CS representative emphasised the need to understand how a new technology might replace or displace existing industry. For example, if nanotubes are used in wiring instead of copper, what will happen to indigenous copper mining industry in Peru? The example was given by another CS representative of the situation in Andhra Pradesh in India when the mechanisation of agriculture was introduced. Despite promises of increased standards of living, 20 million out of 80 million of the state’s poorest people are likely to be pushed out of their agricultural livelihoods with no alternative employment having been made available. The possibility that this was not necessarily a technological issue but a political one was raised by a member of the working group. A working group member also suggested that the industrial revolution, for example, had led to a general increase in standards of living for everyone, but this was disputed by a CS representative who pointed to the increasing levels of global poverty. The working group maintained that these questions were very broad, big ones for society as a whole, which were outside the remit of this study.

A CS representative suggested that what is needed is a paradigm shift from technology as driving change to technology as enabling change, and for the voice of poor to be represented at policy level. The exact mechanism for achieving this was not explored in detail, but it was agreed that for it to be effective it would have to be global. One suggestion from a CS representative was an international convention for evaluating new technologies. It was noted that these arguments were generic to technological progress and not unique to nanotechnology.


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The Royal Academy of Engineering