Prof Rip outlined his background. He began his career as a chemist but has always had broader interests in philosophy and in the role of science and technology in society. He specialised in the social aspects of science and technology assessment in Leiden University then worked on the dynamics of science and technology at the University of Amsterdam before joining University of Twente in 1987. The University of Twente is a two-core university: science and engineering, and applied social science.
Current interest in nanotechnology
Nanotechnology is an example of a technology where one needs to investigate the potential social and ethical impacts at an early stage before it is apparent what can and cannot be achieved by the technology. What one can do, however, is tracing emerging irreversibilities because of mutual dependencies, as in shared agendas for further R&D in particular directions, network linkages which enable and constrain. Such emerging irreversibilities then are the basis for considering eventual social and ethical impacts. One can sometimes identify points at which there is ‘no going back’. In the Netherlands, part of the funding from the €275 million NanoNed national R&D initiative has been set aside to look at the potential ethical, legal and social aspects. This is funded by the nanotechnologists because they are both interested in the outcome and because they anticipate future concerns of politicians and the general public. Prof Rip has submitted the proposal for funding from NanoNed which had been circulated to the Working Group prior to the evidence session. In the first round of funding, there are two PhD students and a one-year postdoc, but the second round of funding will allow him to expand this team with at least two more PhD students and two postdocs. In addition he is creating interest in the issues among nanotechnologists by, for example, encouraging PhD students to devote one chapter of their thesis on the social and ethical aspects of their research. Finally he is also raising awareness of these issues in the Netherlands (joining forces with the Rathenau Institute which is setting up workshops and public hearings on nanotechnology) and more widely in Europe.
How are uncertainties in the development of nanotechnology addressed in the research?
Prof Rip may look directly at uncertainties, e.g. how realistic are the promises of molecular manufacturing, if he has sufficient funding. He will plan a feasibility study of the potential for human enhancement.
However, the emphasis now is on supporting reflection and the articulation of better strategies for developing nanotechnology in relation to society. It is hoped that the development of nanotechnology will be more prudent as result of envisaging future possibilities. The analysis of emerging irreversibilities allows the building of sociotechnical scenarios. Non-linear trend analysis and background social analysis are used to create possible scenarios, including identifying forks in further development that might occur.
To do this he looks at the expectations for nanotechnology that are being put forward. The ‘rosy picture’ of future developments and products tends to prompt the speculative concerns from NGO groups and others. Often the level of expectation doesn’t match the delivery. Although the science is progressing well we are often not even at the prototype stage. At some point people will discover the gap between expectation and reality and a disappointment cycle will set in. Thus one of the scenarios that Prof Rip is developing considers what might happen at the institutional level when this disappointment sets in. It begins by tracing the dynamics of present expectations (i.e. where do they come from? who is voicing them?). He will then ask the main ‘actors’ such as scientists and industrialists what they think of the scenarios – not to make decisions for them but to support them to develop better strategies with the help of the various aspects of the scenarios. In addition he will be looking at the public images of nanotechnology (jointly with the Rathenau Institute).
Are there geographical differences in expectations of nanotechnology?
Although he had not undertaken any formal geographical mapping, Prof Rip believed that there stronger promises as well as stronger criticisms of nanotechnology in the US. It might well be that the promises of human enhancement, when not achieved in the next five years or so, will lead to disappointment, and implosion of the nanotech ‘bubble’. In Europe, expectations are more modest, and there is less risk of implosion. This, and the increased interaction between the social sciences and the development of nanotechnology in Europe, would allow Europe to make more progress in the long run - even though US is currently further advanced.
Will results of the RS/RAEng nanotechnology study be of use to your study?
Prof Rip believed that the report of the RS/RAEng study would be a useful source material for his study – for rhetorical analysis and as an indicator that a shared repertoire about the nature of development of nanotechnology is emerging.
Perspectives on the regulation of nanotechnology and the role of the regulatory
Prof Rip has studied the way in which the precautionary principle is being translated into regulation. Bureaucracies have substantial difficulties in translating a very open-ended approach into regulation and this can lead to major problems. Prof Rip noted that some have called for a moratorium on nanotechnology, which he felt would be difficult to implement on individual sectors of nanotechnology. On a personal note he has argued for a moratorium on some areas of genetics, not because of great danger but to demonstrate that it can be done. The voluntary moratorium by scientists that followed the Asilomar conference in 1975 demonstrates that it can be done. However Prof Rip did not believe that this approach was possible under European law although common law in the UK may offer some possibilities.
Prof Rip noted that regulation of food and health was very close to ongoing practises and that making regulation based on potential (rather than actual) risks that might emerge from nanotechnology would pose difficulties. However in the area of environmental regulation there was probably more experience in dealing with somewhat speculative risks. With respect to occupational health and safety, regulatory offices may not be able to meet challenge if for example the automobile and other sectors showed a rapid take up of products such as coatings that contained nanoparticles.
Nanotechnology tends to be considered by some as if it is a coherent area but it is a cluster of new technologies sharing scale and sometimes new effects. However because such big claims are made for it, it has become a rhetorical entity in its own right. Then, questions are raised about promises and risks of nanotechnology as such, even if this is nonsensical. Disaggregation of the term ‘nanotechnology’ is necessary to have effective regulation.
Ethics and nanotechnology in Europe.
Prof Rip was asked how thinking about the ethical impacts of nanotechnology was developing in Europe and whether any conclusions had been drawn. He noted that ethical considerations were at a very early stage. Ethicists recognise it as a new topic and might discuss it but they don’t yet understand nanotechnology and its implications. The Dutch Rathenau Institute has provided a good starting point in its recent study of nanotechnology by locating developments in nanotechnology in specific areas like environment, privacy, military, so that ethical issues are visible from the beginning. In Europe there is recognition that ethics will be an issue but not much research is being undertaken. There are ethics board, as in Nano2life (a European Network of Excellence), which may become active. Experts in social aspects of technology are more advanced in their consideration of nanotechnology as they have a link to immediate economic issues. Researchers are only really being funded this year to look at societal impacts of nanotechnology. In the US there is a bigger gap between scientists, social scientists & ethicists than there is in Europe.
The dynamics of warnings
Prof Rip was asked to explain the dynamics of warnings that are mentioned in his Nanoned proposal. He explained the mutual escalation that can take place between those that make claims about the value of their scientific developments and those that sound the warning. Initially promises are made about developments and early warnings about the potential impacts of these developments are given. This can escalate into a mutual undermining of credibility and the attempt by both sides to gain more information and allies to support their claims. This escalation has already started to happen in the case of nanotechnology. A scenario to reduce this escalation and identify what becoming known is needed. One possibility is a moratorium on one area of nanotechnology (and there are proposals already, not just by ETC). Professor Rip argued that a moratorium, in whatever area, would be important, because it would demonstrate to politicians and the public that nanotechnologists are prepared to stop for a short time. This would diffuse the escalation. It would, of course, victimise the sector to which the moratorium was applied.
While this may seem an extreme example, it does show that one include the intended and unintended “social engineering” aspects in thinking about the developemtn of nanotechnology.
Role of EU networks
Prof Rip stated his belief in the need to create space where the issues surrounding nanotechnology and the impacts of its development can be reflected on and speculated on by nanotechnologists, social scientists and ethicists. This would be preferable to a public debate that is often characterised by posturing. His hope was that the integrated EU networks would provide space for such interaction.
The Chair thanked Prof Rip for his assistance. Prof Rip agreed to provide the secretariat with key references on the dynamics of science.
NanoNed proposal, 12 February 2003
Technology Assessment of NanoTechnology
Summary: The focus is on processes (of co-evolution of nanotechnoloy and society)
and how to improve them. Three main components:
1. mapping and analysing ongoing dynamics of technological development, the actors and networks involved, and the further (and possibly conflictual) embedding in society, with particular attention to emerging patterns
2. articulating, on that basis, socio-technical scenarios about further developments and possible impacts, and stimulating reflection.
3. search for early signals about impact (as such, and in terms of concerns that can be articulated).
Nanotechnology is at an early stage of development. Promises about new technological options abound, but little definitive can be said about their eventual realization, let alone impacts on society. Thus, an impact assessment of nanotechnology would be speculation; one could call it science fiction (about future nanotechnology) combined with social science fiction (about the world in which future nanotechnology would have impacts). Still, it is important to create visions of possible futures, so as to stimulate reflection and broaden the scope of strategic choices about nanotechnology and more generally.
Within the range of approaches to technology assessment, one can see future visioning as one extreme. The other extreme is how firms and R&D institutions compare existing technological options in order to select the promising ones. In other words, an attempt to pick the winners, even if it the question which will in the end be the winners is still open. Within the range of approaches between these two extremes, new methodologies have been developed and piloted over the last ten years, under the label of Constructive Technology Assessment. This approach is called ‘constructive’ because it attempts to contribute to the actual construction of new technologies and how these get more or less embedded in society, rather than wait for this to happen and only then try to map possible impacts. It is this approach which will be followed in the project. Other methodologies and techniques, and contributions from further disciplines, will be included when appropriate.
The approach of Constructive Technology Assessment has been pioneered by Rip and his group at the University of Twente, and is now attracting attention worldwide.
A. Rip, Th. Misa, J.W. Schot (eds.), Managing Technology in Society. The Approach
of Constructive Technology Assessment (London: Pinter Publishers, 1995).
Johan Schot and Arie Rip, 'The Past and Future of Constructive Technology Assessment,' Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 54 (1997) 251-268.
Arie Rip, ‘Assessing the Impacts of Innovation: New Developments in Technology Assessment,’ in OECD Proceedings, Social Sciences and Innovation, Paris: OECD, 2001, pp. 197-213.
Arie Rip, Challenges for Technology Foresight/Assessment and Governance, Enschede: University of Twente, 2002. A report commissioned by the Commission of the European Union, contributing to the STRATA program area ‘Sustainability: R&D policy, the precautionary principle and new governance models’.
The overall perspective is one of co-evolution of technological developments and societal changes, in which patterns emerge (including preferred technological paths and so-called dominant designs) which will shape further co-evolution. Concretely, the approach combines
• mapping and analysing ongoing dynamics of technological development, the actors and networks involved, and the further (and possibly conflictual) embedding in society, with particular attention to emerging patterns
• articulating, on that basis, socio-technical scenarios about further developments and possible impacts, and stimulating reflection more broadly..
There is an element of speculation, but it is controlled speculation. It will help technologists and other relevant actors to reflect on their strategies and choices, making these more socially robust. Compared with customary technological roadmapping, this analysis is broader, and builds on analysis of ongoing dynamics rather than reasoning back from goals to be achieved in x years, and identification of what needs to be done to overcome barriers. The 2002 conference on Nanotechnology Business Roadmap for Industry in Chicago indicated the importance of focusing on dynamics. The scenarios which are developed in this project are open-ended, and serve to identify ‘forks’ in the development so that key choices can be made.
Nanotechnology is still at an early stage, which implies that it lives on promises rather than actual performances. In addition, the promises of nanotechnology have to be realized through their uptake in other products and services (from better analysis to sunscreeners to drug delivery). Its impact depends on what happens there, and is in that sense co-produced, even if one might consider that is nanotechnology which has made the difference. (Thus, the well-known problem of attribution of impacts to earlier actions.)
The analysis must therefore focus on expectations and how these evolve and set an agenda, and on the parallel emergence of alliances and networks and how these support particular directions of development. In the NanoNed programme itself one sees such agenda building and links with other researchers and with a variety of interested firms. The combination of evolving agendas and emergent structures, and the irreversibilities that arise, sets the patterns for further developments. Constructive TA reconstructs these dynamics and extrapolates them in socio-technical scenarios.
This approach to assessment of a technology at an early stage can build on a number of relevant methodologies and some pilots (including SocRobust, an EU-FP5 project recently concluded), as well on recent advances in relevant disciplines, in particular innovation studies, sociology of technology, and industrial economics. It also raises challenges for these disciplines, viz. to analyze processes in real time rather than in retrospect, and to do so in interdisciplinary collaborations. There are examples already, but for technologies at a later stage, like fuel-cell technologies.
Avadikyan et al. (2003) emphasize, in their analysis, how networks of firms, laboratories and policy-makers create ‘collective visions’ (or at least, shared agendas) and allow sharing of knowledge, aspects usually neglected by economists. Studies by sociologists of technology show how such networks themselves emerge because of expectations about the new technology and attempts to learn about its potential.
Schaeffer, Gerrit Jan, Fuel Cells for the Future. A Contribution to Technology
Forecasting from a Technology Dynamics Perspective, PhD Thesis, University of
Hoogma, Remco, Exploiting Technological Niches. Strategies for Experimental Introduction of Electric Vehicles. PhD Thesis, University of Twente, 2000.
A. Avadikyan. P. Cohendet, J.-A. Heraud (eds.), The Economic Dynamics of Fuel Cell Technologies (Berlin: Springer Verlag, forthcoming 2003)
Clearly, TA studies of nanotechnology can learn from the analysis of what happened with fuel-cell technologies, provided one takes into account the even more open-ended nature of developments in nanotechnology.
The other dimension on which we can learn from what happened with other technologies is about their possibly conflictual embedding in society. While it is too early to expect actual conflicts about nanotechnology, concerns are being articulated, for example about uncontrolled spread of nano-particles. What happened and is happening in this respect with biotechnology and genomics can be taken as a learning experience, even if the technologies are different. Genomics stimulation programmes now have an ELSA component: Ethical, Legal and Social Aspects of the new technology. To include TA studies in the NanoNed program is a similar pro-active response to possible societal concerns (the US National Nanotechnology Initiative responds to recent concerns by saying they are working on them already). In nanotechnology, however, it will be more difficult than in genomics to identify such aspects directly, because nanotechnology’s impacts will depend on how various technological options are taken up in sectors closer to eventual users.
What is possible, and this is the third main component of the project:
• search for early signals about impact (as such, and in terms of concerns that can be articulated).
The challenge is the assessment of the significance of the signals. Customary quality checks cannot be used (the impacts are not yet there) while, as case studies of early warning show, early signals start out as tentative, often diffuse and not yet convincing. Still, there might be something in them. To address this dilemma, two approaches will be used. First, insight in the dynamics of early warning. In particular, recent work in risk assessment has shown the role that ‘story lines’, say of escape of a new device from its confinement, play in the articulation and assessment of concerns (and not only because novels are written with such a plot). Second, the possibility of quality control of the process of interaction and articulation, rather than the signals themselves. This idea is now pursued more widely, and a few interesting experiments with interactive TA can be a further input into understanding the quality of the processes and improving them.
In general, TA of new technologies faces the problem that the technology, let alone the impacts, are not yet there (so controlled speculation is necessary). In addition, the technology that is the object of a TA study may well change along the way, as such and as to intended functionalities; or it may be left because other options appear to be more attractive. Rather than taking these considerations as messages of despair, we see them as challenges. One concrete implication is that TA studies cannot be a one-off matter, and that feedback to relevant actors and take up in choices is often a more important result than the findings of the study as such.
A broader implication is that TA is not (just) about a particular technology and its potential impacts, but about the co-evolution of technologies and society and the emerging patterns that can be traced in the co-evolution. Such patterns then shape further actions and choices, and in that sense, are predictors for what may happen. But the issue is not just about predictability and thus better management (broadly speaking), but also about reflection. What does it mean when you can manipulate and control materials at the nano-scale –which will enable changes which the nanotechnologist herself cannot foresee, let alone control?
Such TA studies require inputs from technology studies and innovation studies (interdisciplinary domains which include contributions from sociologists and philosophers), but also evolutionary economics and industrial economics, industrial ecology and political science. They also, and importantly, require inputs from technologists themselves. The latter, and the productive interaction of technologists and social scientists, will be an explicit part of the design of the project.
2. Goals and activities
• Separate studies (by junior and senior science & technology scholars etc)
• Methodology development
• Dedicated TA studies (with particular emphasis on scenarios and emergent networks and structures)
• Begleitforschung of ongoing nanotechnology research and interaction with researchers and other actors
• Nanotechnologists adding TA and reflection on nanotechnology to their work
• Special meetings and projects (cf. feedback and articulation of strategies)
• Collaboration with TA nanotechnology projects elsewhere, and with scholars doing relevant work in sociology and economics of technology
• Participation in the fast-moving world of nanotechnology
• Link with interactive communication projects about nanotechnology, but no own contribution
These activities will be done by the Dutch TA NanoTech Network, the core members of which are University of Twente, University of Utrecht, Technical University of Delft, and Technical University of Eindhoven, with contributions from other universities and STB-TNO, and from relevant individuals. The TANT Network will be led by Arie Rip (University of Twente).
The TANT Network already has collaborative links with relevant groups, individuals and networks in Europe and outside Europe, and will expand and intensify such links. Examples are the European Network on Social Impact of Nanotechnology (ENSIN), the COST Nanoscience and –Technology Advisory Group (NanoSTAG) with its interest in ELSA studies of NanoTech, and the Technology Scenarios Programme at Risø National Laboratory in Denmark. Interesting developments in the USA, in the wake of the National Nanotechnology Initiative include attempts at interactive TA from CSPO at Columbia University, and the more philosophically oriented projects at the University of South Carolina and their ‘NanoTalk’ discussion forum.
Because of the increasing interest in nanotechnology, such TA-type initiatives, groups and networks proliferate. It is essential to work in a coordinated manner, and for the Dutch TANT efforts select topics and approaches which will make a difference, rather than reiterate what is being done elsewhere. The dynamics of nanotechnology development and its embedment in society are a global phenomenon, even if uptake of nanotechnology will always start locally. Articulation of strategies will take the specifics of the Dutch situation (and to some extent the European situation, e.g. for the issue of selective concentration) into account.
Some of the activities will be part of the regular work of the groups participating
in the TANT Network, or get additional support. The NanoNed funds will be used
for three purposes:
1. To employ researchers (often with an economics or sociology background) on dedicated projects. We expect to have three PhD students and one post-doc employed throughout the period of six years.
2. To support nanotechnologists in doing small projects (and other activities) adding a TA-component to their work. We expect interest with PhD students, and we shall develop special guidance for such projects.
3. To support non-research activities of which strengthen and expand the TA component of NanoNed, and enhance reflection across NanoNed as a whole. These activities will include general inputs from economics, sociology and philosophy, offered by internationally known scholars.
The actual projects will be designed as selections from the items in the general approach, and the opportunities and needs of the research and emerging networks in NanoNed.
We will link up with work that is being done already, for example a Constructive TA study of lab-on-a-chip and technological options linked to advances in nanofluidics; and a study of informal and formal scenarios (“fictive worlds”) of actors, combined with the construction of integrative socio-technical scenarios by the analyst. We can also profit from collaborations that have been set up internationally with evolutionary and industrial economists, and with sociologists and policy analysts working on expectations about new technologies. There are opportunities to develop new approaches in innovation studies and industrial economics.