Introduction

Recent times have seen a remarkable shift in the views about the nexus of science and society and its implications for the development of nanotechnologies. Consider the following quotations from influential reports on the future of nanotechnology. First, from the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering:

In the near- to medium term, many of the social and ethical concerns that have been expressed in evidence are not unique to nanotechnologies.

What Can Nanotechnology Learn from Biotechnology? Copyright © 2008 Elsevier Inc.

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The fact that they are not necessarily unique does not make these concerns any less valid. Past experience with controversial technologies demonstrates that effort will need to be spent whenever significant social and ethical issues arise, irrespective of whether they are genuinely new to nanotechnologies or not. We recommend that the consideration of ethical and social implications of advanced technologies (such as nanotechnologies) should form part of the formal training of all research students and staff working in these areas. (Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, 2004)

And second from a High Level Expert Group of the European Commission:

A Societal Observatory of Converging Technologies: The expert group recommends the creation of a standing committee for real-time monitoring and assessment of international CT research. The primary mission of this observatory is to study social drivers, economic and social opportunities and effects, ethics and human rights dimensions. It also serves as a clearing house and platform for public debate. Among the core members of the committee should be social scientists and philosophers. (Nordmann, 2004)

I think it fair to say that the tenor of these comments, on the significance of ethical and social issues and the need for a social observatory, represent a culture change from the 1990s, and evidence institutional learning as a result of the years of controversy over biotechnology. And coming, as they do, from within the groves of the scientific establishment, they are all the more striking. This is not to say, of course, that such views are necessarily widely applauded among the scientific community at large. In Europe, for example, there have been grumblings about the requirement to address social and ethical issues in research grant applications in 6th Framework programme. Cultural change is a slow process even when some of the elite are in the driving seat.

However, this is not our current concern. Rather, in this chapter I want to explore some of the misapprehensions that appear to have guided the introduction of agricultural biotechnologies and also to identify some of the socio-psychological processes underlying public anxieties about aspects of modern biotechnology. The failure to heed the warning signals of concern from consumers, citizens, and civil society, sometimes dismissed as mere "irrationality," stalled European innovation and cost the agbiotech companies a small fortune. And, as the wider scientific community looked on, it provided a formative learning experience on science in society, which could and should have important implications for the socially robust development of nanotechnology.

With the advent of nuclear power, computers, and most recently modern biotechnology or the life sciences, the three strategic technologies of the post World War II decades, a cleavage between science, technology, and society opened up. Increasingly, sections of the European public questioned whether the good life, as defined by science and technology, is actually what they, the public, aspire to. This cleavage turned into open conflict in Europe over genetically modified (GM) crops and food; a controversy that became emblematic of the questioning of scientific expertise and of the established procedures of risk governance. What were the roots of this controversy and can those developing nanotechologies, the next strategic technology, avoid a similar debacle?

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