Nanotechnologies of humility

Some nanotechnology events should come with a health warning, perhaps along the lines of: “This meeting could seriously alter your perspective”.  Because nanotechnology crosses such diverse areas of interest and expertise, there is a danger of being exposed to ideas that are radically different from your own.  And where exposure occurs, “infection” becomes an issue.

I think I missed the “interdisciplinary inoculation” while I was a kid—there must be one, because I have colleagues who participate in interdisciplinary meetings, and come away unaffected.  But I seem to be particularly susceptible to “interdisciplinary infection”.

Take this last week.  I was enticed over to San Francisco to meet with a group of “informal science educators” (first sign of infection—an expanding jargon vocabulary)—a group of “radical” enthusiasts dedicated to engaging people in science in every imaginable way. This was the annual meeting of the Nanotechnology Informal Science Education (NISE) network in the US—a National Science Foundation-funded network of science museums and researchers, working to increase nanotechnology awareness, knowledge and engagement through all sectors of society.

Leaving the meeting (which in the interests of full disclosure, I should note was the most enjoyable nano-meeting I have been to in a long time), I found a new phrase had crept into my psyche that I just couldn’t shake off—“technologies of humility”.  Resigned to the consequences of mixing with such a diverse crowd, I started digging around to find out more about this idea.

The concept of “technologies of humility” has its origins in the work of Sheila Jasanoff [1, 2].  Jasanoff argues that

“governments should reconsider existing relations among decision-makers, experts, and citizens in the management of technology. Policy-makers need a set of ‘technologies of humility’ for systematically assessing the unknown and the uncertain.” [2]

In contrast, she describes the refinement of conventional (i.e. current) science and technology policy as “technologies of hubris”—policies crafted to reassure the public, and keep the wheels of science and industry turning.

Jasanoff’s arguments and use of language will be unfamiliar to many involved in the generation and use of scientific knowledge—her use of the word “technologies” for instance refers to the social and policy-based mechanisms of how science is done.  Yet her conclusions are clear—in today’s evolving society, we cannot continue to force new sciences and technologies into old ways of thinking.  The simplistic separation of research into basic and applied studies has dominated science policy for over half a century.  Yet according to Jasanoff, this model no longer works.  Instead, we need new approaches that acknowledge the partiality of modern science; that recognize the context within which research is conducted; and that respond to new ways of generating scientific knowledge.

Reading Jasanoff’s work, it strikes me that current nanotechnology development is underpinned—at least in part—by the technologies of hubris: Decision-influencing is dominated by an informed few; context-insensitive science policies are being pursued; and interactions with “the public” are frequently limited to a one-way “dialogue” of promotion.  In contrast, Jasanoff describes technologies of humility as

“methods, or better yet institutionalized habits of thought, that try to come to grips with the ragged fringes of human understanding – the unknown, the uncertain, the ambiguous, and the uncontrollable.” [2]

Given the limitations of science to foresee, predict and control the future, she argues for different forms of engagement between experts, decision-makers and the public to tackle complex issues—to use another jargon phrase, the social contract with science needs to be re-negotiated.  Intriguingly, as well as these technologies of humility covering formal ways in which all stakeholders can participate in the development and use of new developments like nanotechnology, Jasanoff also states the need for

“an intellectual environment in which citizens are encouraged to bring their knowledge and skills to bear on the resolution of common problems.” [2]

This surely highlights the importance of raising science awareness and engagement throughout society.  But it also suggests that everyone potentially touched in some way by nanotechnology has something of value to contribute to its development.

Whatever the future of nanotechnology, maybe we should be approaching it with humility rather than hubris as we strive to develop quality of life-improving technology innovations.  To twist an elegant concept rather tortuously, perhaps we need to think in terms of “nanotechnologies of humility”—being up front about uncertainties and mistakes, listening to and learning from the people that nanotechnologies touch, and ensuring someone is accountable for decisions that are being made.

Or maybe I just need to get that interdisciplinary inoculation jab.  After all, those science and policy leaders at the top know what they are doing… don’t they?

Postscript.

This is a very shallow discussion of how our understanding of the interplay between science and society is changing, and I would encourage you to explore Sheila Jasanoff’s work further.  I should also note that the person principally responsible for “infecting” me in this instance was Rick Borchelt, Director of Communications at the Genetics and Public Policy Center.  And finally, do check out the NISE Network website—they are doing some pretty cool stuff.

References

1.    Jasanoff, S. Nature 2007, 450, 33.
2.    Jasanoff, S. Minerva 2003, 41, 223-244.

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This post first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in November 2007

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