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01/11/2014

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Deliberating nanotechnology in the US

David H. Guston avoids nanotech tea parties

‘No taxation without representation’ was one rallying cry of the American revolutionaries whose successful campaign against Great Britain ensured that I would write this commentary, for a British magazine, as a citizen of the United States. For some years, in both countries, a similarly revolutionary sentiment has circulated with respect to science and technology (S&T): ‘No innovation without representation!’

The normative power of the idea is simple.  S&T, like legislation, provide basic rules for how society operates and how individuals can pursue their interests; thus, like legislation, S&T need to be constructed with the same public participation and representation as laws passed by parliaments.1 Despite its simplicity, this idea’s revolutionary power is hinted at by the often vehement reaction it receives: ‘You can’t vote to repeal Newton’s laws!’ – as if public participation were about ratifying the cognitive content of science, rather than engaging with its profound effects on the social world within which science is constituted. 

Progressive legislation

Few nations have embraced this revolution. Most science policy watchers are familiar with the consensus conferences conducted by the Danish Board of Technology and similar participatory activities by the Dutch Rathenau Institute, and other groups in northern and western Europe. However, the United States has lagged in institutionalising this sentiment. Until recently.

In 2003, the US Congress passed its most progressive science policy law – the 21st Century Nanotechnology R&D Act – which mandated public input into nanotechnology R&D.  The US National Science Foundation subsequently funded two Centers for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS) in 2005. Inspired by this same law, in 2008, the CNS at Arizona State University conducted a National Citizens’ Technology Forum (NCTF) on nanotechnology.2

While the NCTF was not the first public deliberation on nanotechnology, it accomplished important political and intellectual goals.

Serious deliberation

Its political importance rests on another analogy from the early American republic, concerning the challenge of creating a government based on the rule of the people across the geography of a continent. While modelled after the consensus conferences from tiny Denmark, the NCTF invented its own kind of federalism by linking through the internet six groups of citizens who deliberated in locations across the US.  In their local groups of ten to fifteen, the citizens reflected regional demographics and, in their written reports, some regional concerns.  Together, the citizens well represented many dimensions of demographic diversity in the US, and the substantial overlaps among the regional reports could be said to constitute a national perspective.

The intellectual significance of the NCTF was its demonstration that deliberations could be high-quality, despite pathologies that regularly plague such activities. While many small consensus-oriented groups may suppress dissenting opinion, achieve closure because a smaller number of vocal participants carry the day, or conclude with the same perspective as an initial majority without any real thought or change, the NCTF produced a broadly satisfactory process in which individuals were overwhelmingly supportive of their group’s conclusions, and opinions were formed and changed in highly consistent and substantive ways.

The result of the NCTF was thus a clear indication that, even in the US, we can design processes for the participatory governance of S&T, and that citizens are willing and able to discharge their obligations to deliberate in serious, structured ways.  Congress is currently considering a new version of the 2003 law that started us down this course. There is every reason to believe that Congress will attempt to boost public participation in nanotechnology and, with the NCTF, every reason to believe such an effort would be fruitful.

Long live the revolution.

1 L. Winner (1977). Autonomous Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

2 CNS-ASU conducted the NCTF under a subcontract to Patrick Hamlett and Michael Cobb at North Carolina State University.  A complete report of the organization and findings of the NCTF is available at http://cns.asu.edu/reports/

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David H. Guston
David H. Guston is director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, co-director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, and professor of political science. This work is supported by NSF cooperative agreement # 0531194. Any opinions, findings and conclusions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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