Sketched image of two people on opposite sides of an argument

People power

To what degree should the public be involved in discussions on how new technologies are used?

Is there any point involving ‘ordinary’ people when complex technical issues are being discussed?


  • There is a democratic argument that the voice of the people should be heard. If politicians are there to serve the people, should they not occasionally listen to people’s views? Some feel that industry or other groups have the ear of government, and popular views are ignored.
  • ‘Ordinary people’ bring a useful perspective and might be more able to tell what the actual impact of a technology will be.
  • Society has changed dramatically. We are now more willing to challenge authority and have lost trust in many authority figures, particularly politicians.

We now have many ways in which we can get our voices heard. We have a vocal, powerful, challenging media. Information can be shared more easily, on the internet and by email.


  • Very technical issues are being discussed. Can non-specialists really learn enough be able to contribute constructively? (In fact, the evidence to date suggests that, given the opportunity, they can.)
  • Where do we draw the line? Can the public really be involved in every decision, scientific or otherwise? Shouldn’t politicians be representing our interests anyway?
  • Who would be included? What happens, for example, if there are lots of people who have been personally affected? Is this right, or does it introduce bias?

The final decision

Ultimately, decisions have to be made, balancing scientific, social and political considerations, long-term potential against short-term impact, and individual freedoms against the collective good.

Lead image:

Adam Sporka/Flickr CC BY

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