Workshop Report

Workshop Report 08 – Workshop on societal aspects of nanotechnology

WR 08 : Workshop on societal aspects of nanotechnology | October 2006

Increasingly, public perception and acceptance are key factors in the introduction and development of new technologies. The question of acceptance is no longer simply a matter for potential users; the acceptance of technologies by society at large has become increasingly important. In general, the social, ethical-legal, economic, and political issues surrounding the introduction and development of new technologies are much more critical to successful innovation than they were 50 years ago (or even 25 years ago). It is an apparent paradox that the advent of a knowledge economy has coincided in Europe with a crisis of public trust in science and technology. There are increasing demands for more accountability and regulation of the outcomes and impacts from such a science-based development. Part of this is explainable by the ongoing shift in power toward the citizen and consumer and increasingly toward non-governmental organisations and other organisational citizens in what can be referred to as the new politics. The implications of these developments are apparent today. The successful and cost-optimising introduction and development of new technologies require informed consent from major stakeholders and the public.

Social sciences and humanities provide a number of concepts, models and empirical results which shed light on public acceptance, the ultimate success or failure and the cost profiles of the introduction of new technologies. As we have learned from the genetically modified foods issue, the choice for some stakeholders is not between different modes of deliberation and negotiation, but between these and antagonistic forms of social action. This should be of great concern to all those involved in the introduction and development of nanomaterials (e.g. business and banking interests, scientists and government policymakers).

This workshop followed a two-day workshop on Testing Strategies to Establish the Safety of Nanomaterials (published as ECETOC Workshop Report No. 7). Participants at both events included 70 scientific and clinical experts from industry, academia, government agencies and one non-governmental organisation. The workshop was a mixture of lectures and plenary discussions, aimed at providing some overview of European social science capabilities in relation to research and to give advice on the societal context of technical innovation and development. A further aim was to identify and focus on several key societal factors that are likely to affect the future acceptance and commercialisation of nanomaterials.

A key challenge facing society in the broadest sense, and interestingly also the natural scientists themselves, is the definition of nanomaterials; just what are they and how do we imagine them if we cannot touch, feel or see them? There is a natural fear of the unknown or distrust and negative concern about likely impacts on health and environment. Under these circumstances commercial introduction of nano-technology and -materials is viewed as a large scale experiment in the public domain with a perceived high uncertainty regarding safety aspects. Among natural scientists, the view prevails that current risk assessment methods, in principle, can also be applied to assess the risk arising from the use of nanotechnology, although they may have to be adapted to suit the specific characteristics of nanomaterials. But there is also a perception in parts of the public, that this may be inadequate. As a result the public, often through non-governmental organisations, are demanding to be informed and involved. Several of the known key social, including political, conditions of opposition to or rejection of prior technological innovations were compared with conditions of possible acceptance, or rejection, and legitimisation of nanotechnologies.