January 13, 2009
Public engagement was a key feature in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and has been front and foremost in the transition between the old administration and the new. You only have to check out change.gov to see how ideas are evolving on soliciting and evaluating opinions from a broad swath of the population. The latest is the “Citizens Briefing Book”—top-rated ideas from everyday people, to be delivered to Obama after he is sworn in.
This emphasis on open government, citizen engagement, and the use of enabling web-based technology, is expected to spill over to the new administration big-time. And as it does, the public discourse will inevitably encompass science and technology—it already has on the incoming administration’s website. But this raises serious questions: How do you pull people from all walks of life into conversations about science and technology—which are often complex—and how do you empower them to participate in making effective and influential decisions?
These are questions that have been grappled with in the US for some time—not least in the area of nanotechnology. The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 for instance had specific provisions
“for public input and outreach to be integrated into the [National Nanotechnology] Program by the convening of regular and ongoing public discussions, through mechanisms such as citizens’ panels, consensus conferences, and educational events, as appropriate.”
This resulted in two academic Centers for Nanotechnology and Society being established—one at Arizona State University and another at the University of California Santa Barbara. But apart from the research conducted by these centers, there has been little in the way of true public engagement on nanotechnology in the US, in terms of enabling citizens to enter a two-way dialogue with decision-makers.
Which is why I was particularly interested to read Richard Jones’ account of the UK experience, just posted on his blog Soft Machines.
Richard’s blog is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in public engagement on science, and to make sure you do read it, I’m not going to give away much here. Read the rest of this entry »
December 31, 2008
Science gone right, science gone wrong, science gone social, science gone political—it’s all here in five off-beat book recommendations to kick off 2009. Ranging from Darwin’s Origin of Species to Sir Terry Pratchett’s Nation, the one thing I think I can guarantee is that you will struggle to find an odder bunch of literary bed-fellows! Hope you enjoy them, and have a happy new year!
A new year, a new leaf—time for five more eclectic (some might say eccentric) book recommendations to see you through the hangover and into a brighter future.
As in the previous five good books blog, I’ve eschewed the conventional to provide as unusual a potpourri of literary delights as you will find anywhere. And as before, I’ve tried to inject a little method into the madness—spot it if you can!
I should first apologize because this was supposed to be a quick blog, rushed off before the New Years festivities began in earnest. But it turned into a veritable “slow blog!”
So for those of you impatient to read the recommendations and move on, here they are:
- On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
- The Two Cultures, by C. P. Snow
- Trouble with Lichen, by John Wyndham
- Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee
- Nation, by Sir Terry Pratchett
But please do read on, and discover the why behind the what… Read the rest of this entry »
December 24, 2008
Revisiting Sheila Jasanoff’s Technologies of Humility
In 2003, Harvard University’s Sheila Jasanoff wrote about what she termed “Technologies of Humility.” Recognizing the growing disconnect between technological progress and its effective governance, Jasanoff explored new approaches to decision-making that “seek to integrate the ‘can-do’ orientation of science and engineering with the ‘should-do’ questions of ethical and political analysis.” Five years on, her (still radical) ideas resonate deeply with the science and technology ambitions of the incoming Obama administration.
Sitting down this morning, I had intended to write about three papers recently published on-line in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. The papers (by Kahan et al., Pidgeon et al. and Sheufele et al.)—which were widely reported on a few weeks back—consider factors influencing “public” responses to nanotechnology, and challenge long-held beliefs that knowledge leads to acceptance.
However, I became distracted! Searching for an original frame for these studies, I returned to Jasanoff’s 2003 paper “Technologies of Humility: Citizen participation in governing Science,” published in the journal Minerva (Minerva 41:223-244). Reading it, I was struck afresh by how germane Jasanoff’s ideas are, how completely they seemed to have been ignored in US policy making, and how important they are to the science and technology agenda of the incoming Obama administration.
Rather than read a re-hash from me of what is an eloquently written and very accessible paper, I would strongly recommend you pour yourself a glass of good wine (a cup of coffee or fine tea will do just as well), carve out some quality time, and read the original—which is downloadable from here [PDF, 120 KB]. It is after all the holiday season, and what better than a good read to fill the long hours before the grind of work begins once again!
But just in case you are in a hurry and care to put up with my crude and flawed overview, here you are: Read the rest of this entry »
December 17, 2008
Policy, public perceptions, and the opportunities and challenges of synthetic biology
Synthetic biology—a supreme expression of scientific hubris, or the solution to all our problems?
Like everything in life, I suspect that the answer to the question is far from black and white. Yet what is clear is that this emerging science and technology that merges evolutionary biology with systematic engineering raises many exciting new possibilities, together with a heap of complex social, ethical and even religious questions.
Striking the right balance between these opportunities and challenges will require people working together in new and innovative ways—especially those involved in researching, developing, using and overseeing synbio. If the emerging technology is to reach its potential, some tough decisions are going to have to be made at some point on what is developed, how it is used, and how it is regulated. And the more these decisions are based on sound science and informed thinking, the better.
This is the challenge a new initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has set its sights on. The just-launched Project on Synthetic Biology aims to foster informed public and policy discourse concerning the advancement of the field, working in collaboration with researchers, governments, industries, non-government organizations and others. Supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the project will draw on experience gained in addressing science and technology policy issues by the Project on Emerging Technologies—so you can expect to see some familiar faces here ☺
Rather than write a tedious infomercial for the new project, I would suggest instead that you check out the snazzy new website at www.synbioproject.org. Having said that, there are three things worth highlighting: Read the rest of this entry »
December 6, 2008
Getting serious with Twitter
I’m gutted. I thought that blogging was where it is at—the cutting edge of the “new media” wave transforming modern communication. But I now discover that I’m at least four years behind the times—a veritable dinosaur in the world of “Web 2.0!”
Which is why I’m pushing myself out on a limb with a bold experiment in social network communication this week!
November’s edition of Wired Magazine ran a story entitled “Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004.” And just in case you didn’t get the message about blogging from the title, the opening paragraph rammed it home:
“Thinking about launching your own blog? Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t. And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug.”
The blogosphere is being deluged by a stream of “paid bilge” according to the article… Read the rest of this entry »
November 19, 2008
Stephanie Meyer, blockbuster movies and emerging technologies
If you are a teenager, or have teenage kids, you are probably keenly aware that the movie of Stephanie Meyer’s best-seller “Twilight” opens this weekend. (At least, if you live in the US—readers elsewhere have a few more weeks of nail-biting anticipation to go.)
Being something of a cynical opportunist when it comes to blogging, I’ve been wracking my brains for a plausible link between the movie and emerging technologies.
Trouble is, I haven’t read the book, and it’s one of those scary ones that is thick enough to build houses with!
So, I compromised, and asked my thirteen-year-old daughter Bethany—and long-time fan of the Twilight series—to write the blog for me ☺ Read the rest of this entry »
October 5, 2008
The silent rave might seem a rather bizarre social phenomenon; a group of strangers converging in a public place and dancing to their own individual iPod soundtracks. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the emerging technology community has been indulging in the new tech-equivalent of silent raves for some time now.
These suspicions are probably the delusional by-product of jetlag. But travelling back from the latest in a long line of multi-stakeholder nanotechnology meetings last week, the analogy hit a chord… Read the rest of this entry »