New Technology, Old Tradition

Listening to the people

Should the public be involved in discussions about the risks of new technologies?

Some parts of risk assessment are technical – how long a chemical persists in the environment, for instance. But what kinds of risk are acceptable, and for what benefits, is a matter of judgement.

Several groups will want to have their say: scientists may be excited by the opportunities (as well as concerned about the environment), businesses may be driven by a desire to make money, and environmental groups will want to see ‘green’ issues considered.

How could public opinion be gauged?

Some people argue that the public should also have a voice, as the ultimate beneficiaries (or victims). Working out how that can be done is tricky, though. An opinion survey gathers information from many people but doesn’t deal with the complexities of the issue, and its results can depend on how the questions are phrased.

An alternative is to organise longer discussions with a smaller number of people. These deliberative methods will not be statistically representative, as an opinion poll can be. But, carefully handled, such efforts can produce important insights into what kinds of things ordinary people want taken into account and what values should inform decision making.

Sometimes, these discussions get pretty elaborate, as in the so-called ‘consensus conference’, where a group of people come together several times. They study the topic in between meetings, have technical experts on hand to answer questions when they meet and all work together on a final report.

A less costly but still useful method is the focus group. Here, a small group responds to specific issues posed by a trained moderator, who guides – but doesn’t control – the conversation.

Sometimes a variety of methods are used (e.g. an opinion poll may be followed up by focus groups). This can help to maximise the strengths of each method and minimise the limitations.

Whatever method is adopted, there is still the issue of how all the information gathered is used. Should it be taken up lock, stock and barrel? Or considered as one input among many? Expectations are crucial: raise them too high, and people will expect their views to be acted on and become disillusioned if they aren’t; dampen them down, and people may wonder why they should bother to take part.

Nano Jury UK

When nanotechnology emerged, a citizens’ jury called Nano Jury UK spent five weeks (starting 25 May 2005) exploring nanotechnologies. Based in Halifax, the 20 members of the citizens’ jury heard evidence from a range of experts about future potential applications, risks and benefits.

Nano Jury UK was set up by the Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Nanotechnology; the University of Cambridge; Greenpeace UK; the Guardian; and the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre of the University of Newcastle. Their recommendations – made after listening to the experts – included increasing the clarity of labels for products containing nanoparticles. Although EU products now require this labelling, the number of nanoparticle products, from cosmetics to food, has increased significantly. Scientists are now calling for tighter regulation on the use of nanoparticles until more is known about their safety.

Lead image:

Chris Martino CC BY NC

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Nanoscience’ in June 2005 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development