Evaluating and Communicating the Social and Future Effects of Nanotechnology

Topics Covered

Background

Funding Social Science Research

Impact Of Public Opinion In Nanotechnology

Communicating New Technological Developments

Future Collaboration With Scientists And Policy Makers

Background

It is always useful to learn from previous experience and when one considers nanotechnology there are many parallels with the debate over GM crops. For example in the UK in 2003 a public debate was initiated that highlighted the following concerns:

•        Mistrust over benefits (are these for society or for the multinational companies developing the crops)

•        Environmental impacts (both on animal species and possible transfer of genetic material to other plants)

•        Health risks (will there be transfer of genetic material to bacteria in the gut)

•        Aims of the technology (it appears to be a fix rather than a solution to global health and food problems)

•        Lack of understandable discussion from scientists (insufficient, unbiased information for the public to make up their own minds).

There are many ways in which these issues can be addressed in the context of nanotechnology to avoid the pit-falls of the GM debate and also to ensure that those involved in the technology development are fully protected.

Funding Social Science Research

Probably one of the most important mechanisms by which this debate can be seen to have transparency is through the involvement of social scientists that have been specifically trained to research and analyse the societal implications of technological developments. Social science analysis provides a peer-reviewed mechanism by which probable effects can be ascertained by individuals that have an independent and objective stance to those performing the R&D and those making policies. Allied with the approach from the R&D scientists this will allow a balanced and thorough description of the state of the art and future directions for nanotechnologies.

Impact Of Public Opinion In Nanotechnology

Social science is not however, a discrete discipline and so there are many individuals with skills that will prove invaluable to the effective analysis and communication of developing global policies, what public opinion is and how that is changing, and individuals who will be able to act as arbitrators in the public debate. So for example there are political and economic scientists that have been trained to analyse policy making and can provide clarity to the nature and dynamics of global economies and administrations, and how these will impact each other and future technology developments.

Communicating New Technological Developments

There are others experienced in media studies who can offer an insight to the different biases within government, industry and indeed the media itself, which can shape the views and attitudes of society to particular issues. In addition, such individuals can assist in determining the best means by which to communicate new technological developments to society in general. Although this is not an exhaustive list, it goes some way to illustrate the fact that trained and experienced individuals (whether from the physical, life or social sciences) can, if they work together, inform society about what is happening, why it is important, and what the considerations and the long term implications are for nanotechnology developments.

Future Collaboration With Scientists And Policy Makers

Technology has advanced ever more rapidly in the last century and when one considers that nowadays a larger proportion of society (particularly, but not exclusively, in developed countries) are better informed and more willing to question the judgement of authority, then it becomes clear that this “collaboration” between scientists, social scientists and policy makers will aid society as a whole in coming to agreement about the legislation and regulation of new developments.

Primary author: Professor Richard Jones & Professor Simon Wood

Source: ESRC The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology Report 2003

For more information on this source please visit Economic and Social Research Council

 

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