A two-year study by Lancaster University and Demos, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, highlights the need for ‘upstream’ public discussion about research and development of nanotechnologies.
Failure to engage the public in decisions about the use and regulation of nanotechnologies could generate a controversy similar to that over genetically modified food, according to the findings of a study published today by Lancaster University and the think-tank Demos. The report Governing At The Nanoscale, argues that an open debate about the future uses of nanotechnologies, involving scientists, policy makers and the public, must take place now, before more products using nanotechnologies hit the market.
The report, written by Matthew Kearnes and Phil Macnaghten of Lancaster University and James Wilsdon of Demos, is the culmination of a two-year study looking into public perceptions of nanotechnologies, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council.
“If we are to avoid nanotechnologies becoming the next GM”, says Phil Macnaghten, co-author of the study, “it is vital that we have a genuine public dialogue about their promises, risks and applications. This should take place now, at an early stage in the cycle of research and development.”
Nanoparticles are already being used in a number of products, including cosmetics, sun cream, the iPod nano (which has nanoscale components), and sports equipment such as golf balls. The range of products using nanotechnologies is set to expand rapidly in the next few years.
Spending on nanotechnology research has increased exponentially, with Europe, the United States and Japan each spending around US$1.2 billion in 2005.
“Nanotechnologies are already being used in a range of products,” says Phil Macnaghten. “Our research shows there is a real appetite on the part of the public to discuss what these technologies might mean for society. There is also a growing awareness amongst scientists of the need to enter into a dialogue.”
The study is based on focus group research with members of the public across the UK, interviews with opinion formers inside and outside government, and ethnographic research in nanoscience laboratories at Cambridge and Oxford universities.
The key findings of the research include:
- The public are concerned over the pace, scope and intensity of technological change, and feel that they lack the power to shape the direction of technological innovation.
- There is some public unease about the implications of nanotechnologies, especially in relation to the potential toxicity of nanoparticles. Critically, this ambivalence does not diminish when people gain greater knowledge or awareness of the technology.
- Scientists and members of the public alike are aware of the growth of private sector influence in universities, and have concerns about the degree to which commercial considerations will drive the development of nanotechnologies.
- The way that government and business mishandled GM foods and crops is regarded by many as an argument for a more cautious approach towards advances in nanotechnologies.
- Both scientists and the public think that there are considerable difficulties in establishing robust and effective systems of governance and regulation.
Demos and Lancaster University will be continuing their research in this area with a further programme of experiments in public engagement called the Nanodialogues. These are funded by the UK government’s ScienceWise programme, and involve a range of partners, including the Environment Agency, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and Practical Action, a development NGO with significant experience of public participation in developing countries.
Notes to editors
- Governing at the Nanoscale: People, policies and emerging technologies, by Matthew Kearnes, Phil Macnaghten and James Wilsdon, is published by Demos and Lancaster University on 6th April 2006. Copies can be downloaded from www.demos.co.uk/publications/governingatthenanoscale or ordered from Central Books on 020 8986 5488.
- Governing at the Nanoscale will be launched at a special conference on Thursday 6th April, 9:00 – 16:00. The event will take place at Broadway House, Tothill Street, London SW1H 9NQ. Please register for the event by emailing email@example.com
- Matthew Kearnes is a research fellow and Phil Macnaghten is a senior lecturer in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. James Wilsdon is head of science and innovation at Demos.
- Demos is the think tank for everyday democracy. It has a well-established programme of work on public engagement in science.
- Lancaster University has a long track record of innovative research into the social and ethical implications of new and emerging technologies.
- The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC total expenditure in 2005/6 is £135million. At any time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk