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.