Douglas Parr (Greenpeace, UK)
on nanotech, funding and science policy


Beyond Communication: Nanotech Does not Exist in a Vacuum

First, let me spell out what Greenpeace's position is on nanotechnology. I do this because all too frequently any statement that is critical of the current status quo is (rather foolishly) taken as being somehow "anti-science".

Greenpeace believes that nanotechnology has real potential to help deal with the problems that industrialisation has caused for the environment and need to meet the growing needs of developing countries in the most environmentally friendly way feasible. Specifically, there are real opportunities for energy-efficient products, cheaper solar power and cleaner manufacturing processes. If nanotech could be the motor behind the conversion to a clean, renewable energy system that we badly need to avoid climate change we'll be right behind it.

However, alongside these opportunities come concerns. One is that these opportunities will not be taken up because the political will and financial incentives are not there; who will invest in clean production when it's cheaper to dispose of hazardous waste? Others are about the risks - for example nanoparticles pose new issues for ensuring health and environmental safety. And the fusion of nanotechnology and biotechnology poses the prospect of self-replicating "machines" far more rapidly, and with far fewer conceptual leaps than the conventional 'grey goo' scenario. These themes and others around nanotechnology were explored in our report "Future Technologies, Today's Choices".

What, then, of Philip Campbell's article? The first thing I notice is that it focuses on communication. I have some difficulty in discussing the communication around an issue without examining the content. It presupposes that the only real issue is about how the communication is done, and that controversies which manifest themselves can be described purely in terms of the communications employed. Maybe this is fashionable attitude in the media age, but the mantra around successful websites, the ultimate of modern communications, is that "content is king". So, communication about nanotechnology cannot be divorced from the content of the issue itself and the issues that surround it.

The most significant of these issues stems from the fact that nanotechnology does not exist in a vacuum. Technology and product development is a consequence of funding decisions taken by individuals with particular hoped-for outcomes. This is the system that produces a $100 billion dollars being spent on an International Space Station (ISS), but only millions on a cure for and control of malaria. So it's pretty hard to make a case that the control and direction of scientific funding is ideal. Yet, nanotechnology will enter the same system which is capable of producing such obscene outcomes. Advocates for nanotechnology might argue that this problem applies to all science and technology. Indeed it does, but if nanotechnology is as revolutionary as many seem to think then the issues apply to nano with more force than elsewhere. This observation about funding for the ISS versus malaria control also reveals the flaw in the idea that mere transparency will temper public concern. Transparency assumes that when people are able to look inside the decision-making process they will like what they find. That is, at best, an unproven assumption and at worst outright complacency.

Nanotechnology is not GM food. Nanotech is broader with many more sectors of application - it may well contain much that is not controversial. However, there are some important lessons that can be drawn from the GM controversy about public concern. The best place to start is the pan-European research project Public perception of Agricultural Biotechnology in Europe (PABE), that examined public attitudes across a number of European countries towards GMOs. What emerges is not that Europeans are 'anti-GM' or 'anti-science', but that they have a deep scepticism about the ability and willingness of governments, companies and scientific institutions to deal effectively with the issues around GM technology. These public sentiments are based on past behaviours over a number of years - certainly not just because of BSE. It is the way these organisations behave, coupled with the possible risks, which brings out citizen concerns. Whilst it is not always valid to read across from one set of social science findings to a different situation, it would seem reasonable to suppose that the same scepticism from the European public will greet the arrival of nanotech. In other words, the arrangements around science funding and deployment, who controls it, the legal framework, commercial involvement, what assumptions are being made and so on, are all bound up with how people see the technology. It's not just the technology itself.

Such a lack of trust in the key players, together with the points above about directions of scientific funding, gives the lie to the oft-heard suggestion that 'we need to start with the science'. The scientific knowledge base is also a product of funding decisions to find out some things but not others. By the time 'the science' is available for inspection, those same institutions have had an important, if subtle, shaping role on what we know - and what we don't.

Rather than simply seeing this as a problem, the imminent arrival of nanotech represents an opportunity to make a fresh start around science and innovation so that the process delivers socially and environmentally good things whilst commanding public support. But it needs fundamental reform to achieve this - no amount of clever communication will achieve it. An agenda for action would include genuine public involvement in how research priorities are set through processes such as citizens' juries or consensus conferences. The tools to do this are available - what may not be available is the willingness of governments and scientific policy makers to change their ways of behaviour, give up some power and take public concerns seriously. Ultimately, however, if the opportunities nanotech brings are to be realised and it is not going to be greeted by the same kind of scepticism that greeted GM crops, there is no other choice.

(c) Douglas Parr, editing by Martin Schäfer



Dr. Douglas Parr, chief scientist of Greenpeace, UK, responds on the article presented by Philip Campbell and focuses on the decision making in science policy and funding.
(November 2003)

Greenpeace, UK, at

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