Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Can Government Fulfil Its Commitment to Engage the Public about Nanotechnology?

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Can Government Fulfil Its Commitment to Engage the Public about Nanotechnology?

Article excerpt

Nanotechnologies are predicted to radically transform a range of industries and to usher in diverse social, economic, environmental and other impacts. Given the magnitude of these possible changes and impacts, it is natural to expect that citizens and communities will have some say in the development of nanotechnologies. Reflecting this, in recent years there has been an international groundswell in public engagement activities.

This paper evaluates the effectiveness of public engagement related to nanotechnologies in Australia since 2009 when the Federal Government established a National Enabling Technologies Strategy (NETS). We assess the extent to which NETS' activities comply with the Government's stated principles and commitment to best practice, as well as other broadly understood public engagement norms and practices. This assessment contrasts NETS invocation of best practice claims with practices that frequently fall short, and an alarming disconnect between nano-related research, development and commercialisation, and community interests and concerns.


Community members are entitled to be involved in making decisions about developments in science and technology (Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden 2005; Powell and Colin 2008; Kyle and Dodds 2009; Lyons and Whelan 2010), especially when they are anticipated to have profound consequences for everyday life. Nanotechnologies - referring to the design or manipulation of structures and devices at a scale of 1 to 100 nanometres (or billionths of a metre) - are predicted to radically transform a range of industries. From food and agriculture, health and medicine, to energy and environmental remediation, nanotechnologies introduce a range of social, environmental and other impacts. Accordingly, there are compelling reasons to foster deliberative processes that engage the public along with governments and corporations to guide research, development and commercialisation of nanotechnologies. In recent years there has been a groundswell in public engagement activities (see for example RS/RAE 2004; Kleinman et al. 2009). Governments around the world (including in the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan and Australia) have responded to calls for public engagement by implementing a range of activities including panels, citizen juries, citizen schools, nano-dialogues, nano cafés and formal inquiries. But how effective are these activities in ensuring that developments in nanotechnologies fulfil community expectations, hopes and aspirations?

To answer these questions, we examine recent engagement activities in the Australian context. The case study for our analysis is the National Enabling Technologies Strategy (NETS), an initiative of the Australian Federal Government's Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR). The NETS was introduced in 2009 to support the development of 'enabling' technologies, including biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. Given its scale, resourcing and claimed links to policy making, the NETS arguably represents the most significant nano- engagement activity in Australia to date. The strategy was founded on a commitment to community engagement; including increasing public understandings of enabling technologies, as well as technology developers' and policy makers' understandings of public concerns (see NETS 2009). In this paper we evaluate the effectiveness of some of the processes and outcomes associated with these public engagement activities, and critically reflect on the ways in which public engagement is understood and applied. While the NETS invokes claims of public engagement best practice - including deliberate and inclusive engagement on topics of significance, and with outcomes that will affect governance of new technologies - the activities associated with the Strategy frequently fall short of these commitments.

Compliance with best practice principles will be a necessary prerequisite to ensure the development of nanotechnologies is commensurate with broader community aspirations, expectations and hopes. …

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