Lessons for nanotechnologies

So what implications can we draw from this account for future approaches to nanotechnologies? First, when faced with new situations and technologies, regulators will usually turn to assessment frameworks developed for previous technologies and tied into existing debates. Given this tendency to "fight the last war," there is a need for more textured, socially realistic analysis of the distinctive character of particular technologies, and greater recognition of the limitations of conventional models of risk assessment.

Second, it is important to be more realistic about the diverse roles of NGOs. The breadth and unfamiliarity of issues now being thrown up by new technologies mean that NGO responses are in continuing flux, and a richer account of the ways in which NGOs "represent" opinion in wider society is needed.

Third, the GM case suggests that the deficit model of public skepticism or mistrust of science and technology is a fundamental obstacle for institutions charged with the regulation and assessment of new technologies. For nanotechnologies, there is a need to build in more complex and mature models of publics into "upstream" policies and practices.

Fourth, GM demonstrates the ways in which new technologies often operate as nodal points around which wider public concerns condense. Such processes of condensation are inherently unpredictable. However, a richer understanding of the underlying dynamics of such processes—informed by recent thinking in the social sciences—could begin to provide some clues. In considering approaches to the social handling of nanotechnology and its potential manifestations in applied forms, care will need to be taken to "design in" greater social resilience.

Finally, our research on emerging public attitudes suggests clear parallels between nano and bio. In both cases people expressed ambivalence, fatalism, anxiety over the directions in which the technology was moving, as well as skepticism in the ability of governments and regulators to exercise adequate oversight. In both cases this ambivalence did not diminish through greater knowledge and awareness. Instead, through exposure to the multiple ways in which the debate was being characterized, and through debate and deliberation, our participants moved towards a more skeptical view as to the ability of government and industry to represent the public interest.

However, while harboring unease, participants also saw the considerable promise for nanotechnologies to contribute to the social good. While the social visions tacit in GM were never openly acknowledged or subjected to public discussion, this remains still an opportunity for nanotechnology. In essence, a more open model of innovation is required, in which imaginaries are opened up to greater scrutiny and debate. We will need to open up the "black boxes" of science and innovation, to induce greater reflexive awareness amongst scientists, policymakers, corporations, and others. In this way, innovation processes may indirectly gain added sensitivity to diverse human needs and aspirations, and so achieve greater resilience and sustainability.

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