While efforts to involve the public in decision making on new technologies such as nanotechnology are impressive, they need to be substantially rethought, argues a new report from the EU-funded DEEPEN ('Deepening ethical engagement and participation in emerging nanotechnologies') project.
DEEPEN received EUR 894,000 in funding from the 'Science and society' budget line of the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). The three-year project brought together experts in ethics and philosophy and the social and political sciences from Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and the UK.
'It's great that there is a move towards public dialogue and more responsible development of new technologies, but at the moment this move doesn't go far enough,' comments project coordinator Professor Phil Macnaghten of the UK's Durham University.
'In the case of nanotechnology we find public hunger to be included in shaping the technology's development. However, policy processes don't yet fully take this into account. We'd like to see the terms of the debate being shaken up.'
Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of matter at the molecular level, and it has potential applications in fields as diverse as medicine, communications, energy and the environment. Even when nanotechnology was in its infancy, there was an awareness that these exciting new technologies needed to be developed 'responsibly', and that public concerns about their safety needed to be addressed.
As the researchers note in their report, this posed a dilemma for politicians: how could they regulate the technology in such a way as to enhance innovation, while remaining sensitive to public concerns and potential health and environment risks?
The DEEPEN project sought to examine how ethics and responsibility are understood by the nanoscience community, and to investigate how the public views these new technologies. Finally, it developed a set of recommendations to help policy makers and scientists improve the way they engage with the public on these issues.
According to the report, one major problem is the persistent belief that 'scientists do science, while society and ethicists deal with any ethical or social implications'. This reflects the assumption that the benefits of nanotechnology need to be pushed, and ethics is a 'brake on progress', the project partners argue.
The authors emphasise that in order to move forward, this division of labour must be broken down. Codes of conduct are one way of doing this, they suggest. Furthermore, funding bodies can encourage change by requiring their beneficiaries to take ethical and social considerations into account.
A key lesson from the project is that public attitudes to nanotechnologies are rather complex and cannot be lumped into simple 'positive' and 'negative' categories. 'We must move beyond the language of 'pro or anti', and 'risks versus benefits', and acknowledge that the judgements about nanotechnology that all of us make - whether layperson, scientist, or policymaker - are not easily encapsulated in tick box surveys,' the report reads.
The researchers recommend that more thought be given both to the way in which public opinions are measured and the way in which the public is understood and involved in engagement activities.
The project partners urge policy makers to be innovative in finding ways to ensure the public is given a say in the decision-making process, and encourages them to explore different formats for public engagement.
However, they underscore that 'public engagement must be understood as sets of initiatives, rather than as one-off events - creating a public debate that is both flexible and diverse'.
The researchers also suggest that the debate should focus less on highly speculative ideas of what nanotechnology might be like in the distant future, and instead direct attention to its current situation.
Professor Macnaghten concludes: 'We want our analysis to be helpful to those at the cutting edge of decision making in science, while at the same time not shying away from the fact that this presents a challenge to the way that things are being done.'