Science, Technology and Governance in Europe (STAGE)

Nanotechnology: social, ethical, legal and economic issues – a STAGE input

The context – informed social consent for technical change

The social, ethical, legal and economic issues surrounding the introduction of new technologies are now more critical to successful innovation than they were twenty years ago. Paradoxically the advent of a ‘knowledge economy’ has coincided in a number of countries with a crisis of public trust in science and technology, and pressure for more accountability for the full range of outcomes from science-based development. Some analysts see this as a function of specific short-term historical problems in the governance of S&T, whilst others see it as symptomatic of a secular, long-term and more comprehensive trend towards the adoption of a ‘social innovation system’ which shifts power towards the citizen and consumer. In either case the practical outcome for scientific governance in the immediate future is the same: the successful introduction of new technologies now requires informed consent from major stakeholders and publics, and we are still at the early stages of learning about the modalities and conditions determining how such informed consent may be achieved, and how stable it may be.

In seeking answers to these questions, we face a dynamic situation, with all stakeholders adjusting their positions in the light of their view of the evidence, their view of pressure or support from their constituents, and their learning from the outcomes of past public engagement, of all kinds. As we have seen from the GM foods issue, the choice for some participants is not between different forms of deliberative democracy, but between these and agonistic forms of social action.

The issues raised by nanotechnology and nanoscience

In this context the question to be asked of nanotechnology and nanoscience is not whether it will present us with issues of public engagement, but what their scope and novelty is likely to be. There is strong reason for belief that nanotechnology and nanoscience are likely to present us with a wide range of such novel issues, for the following reasons:

Towards an informed debate

Different stakeholders have different interests and different criteria of what will constitute success in the development of nanoscience and the implementation of nanotechnology. Given that, in addition, we will be dealing with much that is unknown, there can be no single prescriptive route to a consensual future; nor indeed is there certainty that a consensual future exists. The required strategy may be to engaging scientists and engineers involved with nanotech, together with government, NGOs and wider publics, in a continuing informed debate in which:

- the legitimacy of different stakeholders and the different values their positions represent are recognised;

- all are offered the best access to each other, and to current knowledge and expertise, in a discourse which acknowledges unknowns and unknowables.

Within such a process social scientists have a particular role to work with others in order to:

- provide reflexive commentary on developments in nanotechnology, putting it in the context of governance and regulation of other fields of science, of other policy domains, and other countries;

- frame experiments in wider technology assessment, including deliberative democracy, frame also their evaluation, and support social learning derived from them.

A possible contribution

Our European network STAGE (Science, Technology and Governance in Europe) may be able to help with this. STAGE, coordinated by Peter Healey at Brunel University , is currently working under FP5 to develop a more robust understanding of scientific governance in Europe. Its overall objectives are to:

- develop a conceptual framework of how European countries confront common issues of science and technology governance, including those arising from major EU initiatives and European regulation;

- test this through case studies;

- as a result thereof, offer a more secure knowledge base to frame policy and practice concerning wider social participation in the governance of science and technology;

- bring the results to stakeholders in the process including policymakers in industry, government and academia across Europe, as well as NGOs and grassroot movements operating at a national or European level.

Empirically, the technology domains focused within STAGE have up to now been genetic technology (esp. gene modification in relation to food and medicines), ICT, and environmental issues (e.g. nuclear waste management). However, during the last year, we have also had internal discussions about nanotechnology and the way in which it could be framed within our joint governance framework, and at a meeting in Greece in May this year, decided that work on nanotechnology would be a key element of the next phase of our work. As a first contribution we have laid plans to organise a conference to map issues in Europe and the social science capacities to engage them. This would help us and others – including importantly those working in nanotechnology - decide what specific work would be most useful, and to lay the foundations for fruitful interdisciplinary collaboration.

The leader of our nanotechnology programme is Professor Hans Glimell of the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Gothenburg University, who for some years now, has taken a keen interest in nanotechnology and nanoscale science. He took part in the opening NSF conference addressing the wider social, ethical, legal and economic aspects of the NNI, arranged by Mihail Roco and Bill Brainsbridge in 2000; and has since then - in addition to carrying out field studies of the daily work of nano physicists - monitored the policy processes and the public reception of 'the nano' in the US in particular, but increasingly also in Europe. In March this year, he presented a paper at the Discovering the Nanoscale conference hosted by the NNI-sponsored Nano Science Center at the University of South Carolina. STAGE is actively involved in alliance-building to strengthen its locus in this field.

(Science, Technology and Governance in Europe - A European network whose core funding comes from the European Commission)