Nothing seems to be more prominent about human life than its wanting to understand all and put everything together.1 (Buckminster-Fuller, 1969)
The buckyball is the simplest of the carbon structures known as fullerenes. Members of the fullerene family are a major subject of nanotechnology research. 3-D model created by Michael Ströck.
There is little doubt that the rate of change within society is set to increase dramatically as scientific research into nanotechnology advances and converges with other fields such as information technology, cognitive science and genomics. Nanotechnology will play a key role in determining the shape of the future in challenging directions. It will:
- introduce hitherto unimagined materials and technologies which exploit quantum phenomena at the nano scale
- create revolutions in macro scale processes such as frictionless molecular scale machines leading to energy efficiencies in devices approaching perfection
Such radical change is threatening to some in the community and this sometimes contributes to unease over the wisdom of such research. Unease is avoidable if consideration is given to serious community involvement in the development of the science’s direction and if strategies formalizing communications between disparate parties are fostered. This paper examines strategies aimed at addressing community concerns over nanotechnology (NT) from three angles:
- consideration of the possible outcomes from a backlash against the emerging technologies spawned by NT research
- deliberation on community involvement strategies
- creation of a robust, structured, communication mechanism for all involved parties under a common constitution of ethics
Community & science under pressure
A paper admonishing the scientific community over the risks of a “… backlash because the higher spending on nanotechnology research and development is not being matched by attention to ethical issues” has received much media attention.6 Aptly titled, “Mind the Gap: Science and Ethics in Nanotechnology,” it claims that moves for a moratorium on deployment of nanomaterials should be a wake-up call for NT developers.8,11 Concerns amongst the scientific community that public suspicions over future developments in NT may halt this new field are also valid. Some community nervousness is certainly justified since “these technologies offer the potential for great benefit, [but] it is not benefit unalloyed.”12
However, banning research is also unlikely to be desirable as rogue research could still continue.2 This may lead to a worse outcome than a laissez-faire approach because clandestine science has the capacity to drive cold wars for decades. An example of how undesirable secret research can be is the infamous cold war radiation experiments deplored by the late Dr. Richard Korn.7 It would seem unlikely that such disregard for human rights would have been condoned by the wider community of scientific peers of the day, however such peer review never occurred due to security classification.
“Peers under pressure” in the journal Nature cites several modern analogies of less vitiating, but still disconcerting, practices where “competitive pressures disrupt the process” of peer review.4 The aloofness and confidentiality described in the article may be good for protecting intellectual property rights and commercial advantages, but bad for allowing a frank exchange of peer opinion. Ethical concerns of researchers can possibly, therefore, still be silenced. This tendency towards the repetition of a paradigm that permitted the worst excesses of unethical scientific progress is disturbing. It suggests that changes are needed to prevent the normal practice of peer review from being tampered with, while still preserving intellectual property and commercial interests where appropriate. Thus, it is argued, that the peer review process also serves to ethically supervise scientific activity. Banning research is likely to be counterproductive for all parties as it would interfere with the functioning of the peer review process by encouraging a culture of secrecy.
Community involvement in issues
A possible way forward is to involve the community in the decision-making processes that may ultimately decide the shape of their environment. This is not a new idea; “the most pressing issue in science is public involvement… so citizens can be engaged early in balanced discussion of issues.” 8,11 This may not be easy to do, but the rewards will be great if successful. Failure could mean a slide into a counter culture of anti-science. A useful comparison is that of the United States ‘space race’ of the 1960s versus the genetically modified (GM) crop trials in the late 1990s:
- The ‘space race,’ conducted in the public eye with some careful encouragement by presidential and government agencies, developed into a national infatuation.
- Conversely, the secretive testing regime of GM food producers led to a public loathing of technologies that may produce food in less destructive ways than current farming methods.
Therefore, technology developed in secret may receive a short term competitive advantage over its rivals, but will eventually face the long term wrath of the public.
One hopeful indicator of successful interaction between science and the public is the popularity of science in the community:
A new opinion poll  has found that more Australians are interested in news about science, technology, health and the environment than in sports, politics, crime or employment. The remarkable thing is that this is the fifth poll to reach this conclusion in eight years…3
This quotation shows that the community is very attentive to science. So, if all parties can see they have a vested interest in communicating together, then as outlined in “Mind the Gap: Science and Ethics in Nanotechnology,” an ‘intersectorial approach’ is possible.8,11 This intersectorial approach involves providing regular interactions among
- major players in the field
- ethical and social scholars
- government and industry representatives
Although direct community involvement is not explicitly mentioned as part of the intersectorial approach, author Peter Singer’s opinion on this was categorical: “Yes, very much so, we emphasise public engagement among the solutions.”11
Convincing all players that they have a vested interest in public communication has been a priority for the US National Academy of Engineering:
Involving the nonexpert public in deliberations about technological developments as they are taking shape, rather than after the fact, may actually shorten the time and reduce the resources required to bring new technologies into service. Equally important, public participation may also result in design changes that better reflect the needs and desires of society.9
Considering that ‘needs and desires of society’ equals ‘what the customer wants,’ commercial incentives become apparent. Public engagement is already taking place as described in the latest “Joint EC-NSF Workshop on Nanotechnology” where the European Community (EC) shows itself to be leading the field with innovative approaches like scientific cafes where
… scientists meet with citizen groups to discuss implications of new scientific discoveries. Such meetings have the potential to build communication and trust between the public, policymakers, the media, and the technical community.
Further evidence of a strong future for public involvement is illustrated in Scary Monsters and Bright Ideas, where an Australian undertaking of serious public engagement has been tried with encouraging results:
The proof is the success of the Consumer Council’s Concensus Conference of fourteen citizens who were able to sit for three days of expert presentation (over which they had control) and then to offer a list of supremely sensible recommendations. They had understood the technicalities and quizzed the experts but had not been intimidated by them. The essence of their conclusions was to ask for transparency, consultation and regulation in the public interest.13
Such ventures are a good start, however a more formalized structure is needed to encourage the more secretive commercial interests to come out into the limelight.
Supporting the initiatives
Government has authority to legislate on behalf of the people and enforce an agreed set of constitutional values or ethics. However, government involvement is not always welcome, particularly by the more taciturn profit-focused bodies. Indeed, when one is in pursuit of the ‘common good,’ the threat of potential legislation to ensure co-operation is sometimes obligatory.2 Commercial interest and market forces acting alone tend to ignore ethics in favour of profit. Therefore in this arena, as in many others such as law enforcement and defence, a democratic and transparent state is best used to control the levers that drive the markets. This is not to say that decisions should be left entirely to faceless bureaucracy, as Weckert cautions: “The case against the state’s having control of scientific research has not been made, but… [should such a case be made] it should not be embraced lightly.”12
Dr. K. Eric Drexler of the Foresight Institute is more emphatic, “I agree with your view that community engagement seems essential. However, I am skeptical of the value of a formal process that attempts to force this to happen.”5 Such scepticism over government entanglement may be understandable but where there is large public expenditure in research some government involvement in decisions is inevitable.
In any case, the arguments for government involvement include:
- The principle reason for state involvement is not for it to exercise control, but to provide incentive for constructive interaction between all parties.
- A state-funded umbrella organisation is more likely to provide equitable discussion forums than one dominated by the wealthier parties.
- Further, if recalcitrant parties hinder co-operation, the state can usually act as a more independent arbiter than any other party.
While not perfect, such bodies have more chance of success than other models as shown by the recent experiences of the genomics and biotechnology sectors.8,11 I refer specifically to GM testing carried out in secret under the veil of ‘commercial in confidence’ activities. Had the local authorities and community been informed, the testing may have been delayed and the industry wouldn’t have faltered. This was a situation where state intervention could have protected both community and industry interests by foreseeing community backlash and dissuading the test organisers from proceeding without first reassuring the community and gaining their consent.
“Technically Speaking,” a report from the Committee on Technological Literacy in the United States reveals that some state-funded bodies are already forced to inform local communities of their activities.9 So it can be concluded that government support and, where necessary, intervention are pre-requisites to the achievement of positive outcomes for all parties.
When one has put everything together, it becomes clear that the possibility of negative public reactions to nanotechnology is real. Such reactions are, however, avoidable if:
- serious consideration is given to community involvement in the development and direction of the science, and
- strategies formalizing communications between parties are fostered
These measures will ensure nanotechnology is perceived as a socially responsible technology of benefit to all citizens. There is little doubt that civilization will be transformed dramatically as nanotechnology advances and converges with other fields, such as information technology, cognitive science, and genomics. When and how gracefully it undergoes the transitions is dependent on how many members of ‘Spaceship Earth’ can gain an understanding of the changes and grasp hold of the opportunities NT will offer. In this author’s opinion, an elite cannot go it alone, thus some will be left behind. How we deal with those unable to keep up will determine whether we progress smoothly or at all.
© 2003, American Institute of Biological Sciences. Educators have permission to reprint articles for classroom use; other users, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for reprint permission. See reprint policy.