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Home > Focus > Governance and participation in nanotechnology

Governance and participation in nanotechnology

by Redazione FGB [1], 7 April 2008

A look at Wikipedia [2] gives a thorough if not quite technical description of what nanotechnology is or could be defined as. The description opens with "Nanotechnology is a highly multidisciplinary field, drawing from fields such as applied physics, materials science, interface and colloid science, device physics, supramolecular chemistry (which refers to the area of chemistry that focuses on the noncovalent bonding interactions of molecules), self-replicating machines and robotics, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, biological engineering, and electrical engineering". The article also states that the use of the umbrella term is not unproblematic, as these disciplines cited above are autonomous and do not necessarily communicate between each other. The only thing they share is the use of technology that allows them to work on a nano-scale. The article offers an explanation of the two main working practices in the field, bottom-up and top-down, and an explanation of the advantages of working on a nano-scale. The applications are less Frankensteinian than one might imagine, suntan lotions and common pharmaceuticals for example are produced using this technology.
The Wikipedia article also hints at some of the possible ethical concerns that these technologies may raise such as the effect that industrial-scale manufacturing and use of nanomaterials would have on human health and the environment. Longer-term concerns center on the implications that new technologies will have for society at large, and whether these could possibly lead to either a post scarcity economy, or alternatively exacerbate the wealth gap between developed and developing nations. The effects of nanotechnology on the society as a whole, on human health and the environment, on trade, on security, on food systems and even on the definition of "human", have not been characterized or subjected to political debate.
The European commission homepage [3] is an interesting starting point for anyone interested in the governance of and political intervention in nano science. It offers amongst other things a compilation of the commissions communications and resolutions regarding nanotechnology, a code of conduct for responsible nano science research and project and funding information.

There is also a list of events [4]past and present regarding nano technologies, including a debate on governance initiatives for the European nanotech community [5] that took place in Brussels in December 2007, the forthcoming summer school on the ethics of nanotechnology [6] and access to an EC consultation paper "towards a code of conduct for responsible nano science and nano technologies research" [7] that follows on from the nanotechnologies action plan 2005-2009 published on 07/06/2005.

"Citizen participation in science and technology" (CIPAST) produce a nanotechnology newsletter [8]. The CIPAST-Project, which started on April, 1st 2005 and is coordinated by Cité de la Sciènces et de l'Industrie, Paris, aims at bringing together organisations which have significant experiences in the use of participatory procedures in scientific and technological issues, or belong to the different families of experienced actors in that field such as parliamentary offices, research institutes, science shops or science museums, or are already structured in European networks.

Project partners are: Rathenau Institute (Den Haag, NL), Danish Board of Technology (Kopenhagen, DK), University of Westminster (London, Centre for Studies of Democracy, UK), Université de Lausanne (Science and Society Interface, CH), Città della Scienza (Naples, I), Deutsches Hygienemuseum (Dresden, D), INSERM (Paris, F), INRA (Paris, F), ARMINES (Paris, F), Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques (Paris, F) and the Bonn Science Shop.

Their stated aims and interests are as follows:

"The development of initiatives, which extend the social basis for deliberation and decision-making in scientific-technological fields, has its roots in various arenas and bodies which belong to different spheres and are not always linked together. Bringing these actors together, pooling their various capacities, and integrating their various contextual perspectives through a common platform, will provide an opportunity to disseminate useful practices more efficiently. It will boost innovation and foster the emergence of a European culture of participatory democracy in scientific and technological issues".

A special issue of the newsletter [9]was recently published on the CIPAST website. The newsletter was prepared by Nicolas Baya Laffite at L'institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (The French National Institute For Agricultural Research) INRA/TSV. It provides a summary of 60 participatory processes in nanotechnology governance in countries where they have developed significantly as a result of political initiatives, namely in the United States, in the UK and in other Member States of the European Union.
The newsletter draws on the CIPAST database, the 2007 final report of the Nanotechnology Engagement Group (NEG) and extensive Internet research. Their fist stated aim is to give access to data as complete as possible - although not exhaustive - on individual participatory experiences in nanotechnology. The gathering of this information allows one to put these individual experiences into perspective and to open a discussion on the roles of public participation so far in different national and regional political contexts.
Following Sherry Anstein ("A Ladder of Citizen Participation," JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224.) they use a participation ladder analysis to measure the level of public participation.
The newsletter is well researched and very informative. The initiatives are presented through geographic categories with a description of the initiatives in each zone of interest and at the end of each section there is a bibliography. It is an enormous document and over the coming weeks I aim to look at it more deeply and post some more articles on my findings.

There are a host of possible takes on the issue of nanotech just by looking at the Internet coverage of it. One is the commercial one.
Nanoposts.com [10] offers nanotechnology for license or potential sale and also provide a weekly news bulletin.
They state that Nanoposts.com is the only online tool available that allows you to access the latest leading-edge research and development in nanoscience and nanotechnology. Nanoposts.com also provides technology scouting and consultancy services for government bodies and some of the world's leading multinational companies (click here for a list of their customers).
Nanoposts.com enables users and members to find new ideas, technologies, products and services from outside their organisation quickly and - they say - inexpensively by connecting them to the best technology providers from around the world. Nanoposts.com offers the largest and most comprehensive network of nanotechnology providers worldwide.
The Institute of Nanotechnology [11] also offers another large site. For a membership fee they promote conferences and various education and training courses as well as providing advertising and marketing opportunities; they sell reports and various other literature, and offer a contact making service.

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanotechnology
  3. 3] http://cordis.europa.eu/nanotechnology/home.html
  4. 4] http://cordis.europa.eu/nanotechnology/src/events.htm
  5. 5] ftp://ftp.cordis.europa.eu/pub/nanotechnology/docs/agenda_programme_codeevent(05122007)_2.pdf
  6. 6] ftp://ftp.cordis.europa.eu/pub/nanotechnology/docs/prethicschool_101007.pdf
  7. 7] http://ec.europa.eu/research/consultations/pdf/nano-consultation_en.pdf
  8. 8] http://www.cipast.org
  9. 9] http://www.cipast.org/download/CIPAST%20Newsletter%20Nano.pdf
  10. 10] http://www.nanoposts.com/index.php?mod=nanotech
  11. 11] http://www.nano.org.uk
CC Creative Commons - some rights reserved.
See also: interviews with Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute on Nanotechnology and with Lawrence Gasman, cofounder of NanoMarkets (by Jeff Ubois)
Articles by:  Redazione FGB
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