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What the public want to know about science in business

Hilary Sutcliffe tells all

Hilary Sutcliffe tells all.

It has always struck me as odd that the focus of attention and funding of public engagement and science has been with the university research end of the innovation pipeline, rather than the commercialisation end. It is particularly odd as public concern about science and technology innovation (about CFCs, BSE, GM and so on) has mainly arisen when a product on the market has aroused concern about harm to humans or the environment. 

To start to plug this gap, we analysed 15 major public dialogues in the UK and Europe, particularly those conducted about nanotechnologies, synthetic biology and stem cell research.  We also asked investors, NGOs and retail buyers directly for their views.  Though, with a few exceptions, the participants weren’t asked directly about business, we were able to see clear expectations from these dialogues which apply to the commercial outputs of science. 

Knowledge and value

We found, first, that the public wants to know when a new technology is being used.

People basically trust products. But the more unusual the  technology being used, the more transparency is felt to be appropriate particularly if others, such as NGOs or scientists, consider that there are uncertainties and even risks about its use.   Nanotechnology, for example, may have some controversial applications, so there is a growing expectation that companies be more open about the way in which it is used to enhance their products, even where there is no concern currently expressed about hazards or uncertainties.

The public also wants to know why a new product is worth it.

There is a real need for a much richer picture of benefit. One of the first questions people ask of scientists or businesses in dialogues is, ‘Why are you doing it?’  The public want to see that the use of a new technology is ‘worth it’ - that there is a benefit to them or the environment, and it is not just used to create profit for the company - and they want this to be much more thorough, and evidence based,  than a few paragraphs of sales patter. For example: how the product improves on what went before, that it has a social or environmental benefit, that a company has thought through this rationale properly, not simply used technology for technology’s sake.

Risk and regulation

Another question the public ask is, ‘What’s the system for managing risks?’

People know that things will go wrong sometimes, and appear surprisingly pragmatic about it.  What they want to know is that companies have effective systems and processes in place to ensure the products are safe enough; that they have thought carefully about risks; and where there are issues for safe use, that these are made clear to those who need to know. 

When it does go wrong, they expect it to be clear who is liable and how it gets put right. They also expect that the potential for harm be thought about in advance and contingency plans made to respond effectively to problems which arise.

Finally, the public want to know that someone is on the case to ensure effective oversight.

People also know that, realistically, they are not going to look through lots of scientific papers to  find information on risks and benefits of new technologies, but want to feel reassured that independent groups do have easy access to the relevant data and are able to provide effective oversight on their behalf.

Responding to these concerns will not always be easy, but if companies are willing to work with the public, civil society, regulators and others, we believe this process will result in more effective and responsible innovation.

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Hilary Sutcliffe
Hilary Sutcliffe is Director of MATTER, a think tank which seeks to make new technologies work for us all. The next phase of this project is called Society Inside.
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