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 »
January 7, 2009
Here’s a bit of trivia to brighten your day: Between 2000 and 2007, Chinese scientists published roughly one nanotoxicology paper for every ten million people in the country. In contrast, US scientists published twenty-five nanotoxicology papers for every ten million citizens.
I know this because I have just read a fascinating assessment of nanotoxicology publications by Barbara Harthorn and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
You should read it.
Except that you can’t—unless you subscribe to the Journal of Nanoparticle Research, or work somewhere that does. Or you are willing to fork out $34.00 for the paper.
Since leaving the lab nearly four years ago, my empathy with those without ready access to the scientific literature has grown. With the exception of a pitifully small handful of publications I subscribe to, I now have to beg copies of interesting-looking papers from better-connected colleagues. And I’m not alone in this… 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 »
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 »
June 13, 2008
Read Thomas L. Friedman’s “The World is Flat” or Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”, and you get a glimpse into how the hacker culture that emerged at the tail end of the twentieth century revolutionized the digital world. Will a confluence of emerging technologies—including information tech, biotech, and nanotech—lead to a similar revolution in the biological world? Read the rest of this entry »
March 28, 2008
The small American town of Sunnyville is a town in crisis. Against a backdrop of job losses that have decimated the local community, citizens are struggling to decide whether to welcome two major nanotech-enabled industries into the town, or whether to reject them because the new technology might create more problems than it solves.
As if this wasn’t enough, it has just come to light that local company “Happy Home Paint” has been contaminating a neighborhood beauty spot with toxic chemicals for years, and the only way of cleaning the area without destroying it is by using a developmental nanoparticle-based technology.
Will nanotechnology revitalize this town, or will it end up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back? The locals are having a tough time deciding. Read the rest of this entry »
March 6, 2008
Can current approaches to doing science sustain us over the next one hundred years? An increasing reliance on technological fixes to global challenges — including nanotechnology — demands a radical rethink of how we use science in the service of society.
Over the next century we will perhaps be facing the greatest challenge in the history of humanity: sustaining six billion plus people on a planet where natural resources are running scarce and our every action results in a palpable environmental reaction. Progress towards sustainability will only come through integrating relevant science with socially-responsible decision making. Yet the science policy dogmas of the 20th century may be stretched to breaking point in the face of 21st century challenges. Read the rest of this entry »