The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee is due to publish a report this autumn on the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector. Part of the report will address public engagement. Issues like nanotechnology provide huge potential for the community to work together.
In 2005, the Nanotechnology Engagement Group was established to draw conclusions from the findings of a number of public dialogue experiments. One of these, Small Talk, is a challenge to collaboration between science communicators. Perhaps an amble down memory lane is in order?
More influence on policy
Small Talk  enabled the science communication community to work together on an upstream issue – nanotechnology. All the events made use of a portfolio of shared resources. In this way, a wide range of organisations was able to share learning and best practice, as well as collate public views and concerns. Also, through having a united voice, these organisations were more easily able to access policymakers, something they would not have been able to do as individual organisations. The project report contains a useful guide for science communicators on influencing policy.
Small Talk showed that people view nanotechnologies in a similar way to any new technology. They are generally positive about potential applications. Concerns mainly focus on regulation and whether it will be able to meet any new challenges nanotechnologies bring. Public perceptions of risk must be considered – one person’s definition of what is ‘safe’ may be very different to another’s. Small Talk also identified significant divergence between public perceptions of the role and boundaries of government, and the reality.
Poised to contribute
Perhaps science communicators are missing a trick. Year by year, the community runs numerous activities. Some events introduce areas of new science; others delve into issues more deeply. There are events on every conceivable scale. Some go beyond simple communication to deliberative approaches. Yet no coordinated approach is taken to collecting public views, reflecting on them and feeding back into new activities, teasing out further insights. Were this to happen, the community could be in a unique position when issues like ‘nano’ return to the top of the policy agenda.
Small Talk showed that ongoing dialogue with policymakers is possible. Live policy arenas ebb and flow. By working together, developing broadly held objectives, sharing resources and learning, the community could be poised to contribute to forthcoming policy debates, not scrambling to catch up. Public views on very specific topics will not be available at the drop of a hat. From time to time, bespoke engagement processes will need to be designed to address specific questions. However, science communicators could do much more to collate and disseminate what they are learning, week in week out, from their audiences, laying the groundwork for future contributions to policymaking.
The big challenge is funding. Small Talk was run on a budget of £50k, with ‘in-kind’ support from partner organisations. In the long term, this is not a sustainable funding model. However, broad-based collaborations, beyond the traditional science communication community, may open up funding avenues not available to narrowly focused groups.
Timing is crucial. Small Talk reminds us that public values, not specific concerns, are most pertinent for ‘upstream’ issues like nanotechnologies. Select committee attention raises an interesting question. Where nanotechnologies and food intersect, do current developments mean we will soon see whether ‘upstream’ engagement around nanotechnology has prevented the backlash that was seen over GM? Or are nanotechnologies and food a potent combination, like GM itself? If nanotechnologies are now further developed, especially in foods, the time must be right for ‘downstream’ public engagement. Collaboration anyone?