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Value-free nanotech?

Efforts to gauge public attitudes to nanotechnology reveal concerns that can be readily addressed.

A profound question underlying many debates involving science and its publics is “how knowledge comes to be perceived as reliable in political settings, and how scientific claims, more specifically, pattern as authoritative”.

That quote comes from Designs on Nature by Sheila Jasanoff (Princeton University Press, 2005; reviewed in Nature 437, 193–194; 2005), an overview of how the United States, Britain, Germany and the European Union have sought to deal with the issues brought up by biotechnology. Magisterial in its scope, the book takes for granted the idea, alien to many of Nature's readers, that science is not value-free, and that some members of the public have cultural outlooks that are simply unreceptive to accounts of what science tells us.

A corollary of this is the idea, also shared by many science-studies specialists, that attempts by scientists to communicate their discipline to the public are likely to miss the point. Only by fully engaging at the outset with the cultural preconceptions of those audiences — by being what sociologists call ‘reflexive’ — can science's institutions do justice to their goal of engaging with citizens. At its worst, this agenda descends into relativism — the idea that someone's beliefs have as much weight as the so-called facts — or even Lysenkoism, in which the requirements of the state or of powerful groups take precedence over the facts. At its best, however, it can help scientists recognize how public hostility can be mobilized and consolidated despite the weight of peer-reviewed scientific evidence. This may happen because a culture of disrespect for science helps to reinforce cherished beliefs, or because experience has left individuals feeling betrayed by science or its application.

The results of the citizens' jury suggest that nanotechnology is not perceived as a serious threat.

A major concern, especially in Europe, is to try to prevent such a climate enveloping nanotechnology. Experiences with genetically modified crops have led some governments to move towards being reflexive. At the same time, non-governmental organizations and other citizens' groups, more concerned about an emerging technology's potential disadvantages to their own interests, have welcomed the opportunity to tackle them as far upstream as possible.

It is in this context that two reports of citizens' participation are published this month. One, Informed Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government by Jane Macoubrie of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, is a study in which 177 members of the US public were briefed on nanotechnology and given a chance to explore its opportunities and their concerns. It documents weak public trust in regulatory agencies as a result of previous experiences with asbestos, dioxins, Agent Orange and nuclear power — exactly the type of cultural resistance to which Jasanoff and others would point. It also highlights a need to breed trust through better product labelling and compulsory regulation, and indicates a desire for information about the technology.

Another report, published in Britain this week, takes a less conventional approach. Sponsored by Greenpeace, The Guardian newspaper and centres connected to the universities of Cambridge and Newcastle, it represents the outcome of a UK citizens' jury, in which 20 members of the public met repeatedly to hear from a variety of witnesses (see The jury was asked about nanotechnology's benefits for the poor and disadvantaged (weak jury concerns), whether the public should determine when nanoparticles can be used in particular technologies (weak support), and whether it needs to yield more “quality leisure time” to deserve public funds (stronger support). As in the US study, the jury supported labelling, mandatory safety testing and better access to information about which nanotechnologies are being publicly funded.

These two studies reinforce the impression that the public has strong concerns about regulation and a lack of information about nanotechnology, and that nanotechnology is welcomed for its potential benefits. The results of the citizens' jury suggest that nanotechnology is not perceived as a serious threat to the values of anyone but die-hard anti-technologists. But this was a small study, and one that the jurors themselves said is provisional.

Supporters of full-blown reflexiveness should welcome a transparent citizens' jury that has probed society's assumptions about the need for a technology, and should also acknowledge these appeals for communication and regulation. Meanwhile, governments have received some direct public guidance on citizens' interests that must be protected if nanotechnology is to flourish.

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Value-free nanotech?. Nature 437, 451–452 (2005).

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