Nanotechnology and Society:
Where do we stand in the ladder of citizen participation?

This special edition of the CIPAST newsletter - prepared by Nicolas Baya Laffite at INRA/TSV - provides on 35 pages a summary of 60 participatory processes in nanotechnology governance in countries where they have developed significantly as a result of political initiatives. Our first aim is to give access to data as complete as possible – although not exhaustive – on individual participatory experiences in nanotechnology. The gathering of this information allows to put these individual experiences into perspective and to open a discussion on the roles of public participation, so far in different national and regional political contexts.

You can download the pdf of the newsletter (1.5 MB) here.

In the aftermath of the GMO governance failure, the fast development of nanotechnologies has given rise to radically new public policies fostering upstream citizen participation in the debate about the governance of these emerging technologies. Aside from maintaining R&D excellence and industrial competitiveness, the need to address in dialogue with society any risks or uncertainties in terms of environmental, health, ethical and social aspects has emerged as a priority for nanotechnology governance strategy. For the first time, we are witnessing a shared political will and commitment at different government levels to develop and carry out a coherent strategy of formal and informal public debates and other kinds of participatory exercises. These focus on both the promised benefits and the acknowledged risks and “implications” for society attributed to the industrial and commercial development of nanotechnologies. As a result, a growing variety of publics are engaged in the debate. Built on the criticism of the “deficit model”, upstream citizen participation in science and technology has become with nanotechnologies a master narrative of public policies.

This special issue of the CIPAST newsletter provides a summary of participatory processes in nanotechnology governance in countries where they have developed significantly as a result of political initiatives, namely in Great Britain, the United States, and in the European Union. The newsletter draws on the CIPAST database, the 2007 final report of the Nanotechnology Engagement Group (NEG), and extensive internet research, to make available, and put into perspective participatory processes in nanotechnology undertaken in recent years. The idea is to open a discussion on what these various processes have produced until present in different national and regional political contexts in terms of citizen participation in nanotechnology.

This special issue of the CIPAST newsletter takes the participation phenomenon at large. Taking Sherry Arnstein’s “Ladder of Citizen Participation”, we grasp a nuanced concept of citizen participation, from manipulation and therapy, through informing and consultation, to partnership, delegated power and citizen control.

The ladder of participation

In principle, upstream citizen participation in science and technology implies mechanisms and processes to enable two-way exchanges between different publics and different powerholders about technology governance when its development is still in an early stage, with the aspiration of making sure that the goals of the techno-scientific enterprise are aligned with societies values. Nevertheless, in the various cases presented here, different actors foster different notions and expectations of what public engagement in nanotechnology implicates. Hence, nanotechnology and citizenship emerge not as natural categories, but rather as constructed through discourses and practices. In other words, “citizen participation in nanotechnology” cannot be but a specific situated construction.

Consequently, we look at a vast array of projects and activities taking place under diverse national traditions, some of which involve a weak degree of engagement, bordering on non-participation, whereas others enable greater citizen empowerment when it comes to deciding on the present and future developments of nanotechnologies.
With increased coordination and coherence in relevant policy areas, financial and human resources have been mobilised and challenges addressed, as called for by the different national nanoinititives. Albeit there is no participatory exercise that has so far questioned genuinely the legitimacy of the master narrative that goes aside with the development of nanotechnology. This should not surprise. From the very beginning, the stated goal of participatory governance as endorsed by national nanoinititives has been to create the propitious environment for the successful development of nanotechnology and not to question the development of this new driver of economic growth in itself. Conceived as an essential part of larger national nanoinititives, anticipatory nanotechnology governance is thus framed as “avoiding another GMO controversy”. This logic of urgency creates tensions within the overall governance strategy and puts significant constraints on the effectiveness of the participatory processes. In such a context, the question of the impact of upstream citizen participation necessarily arises. How does the outcome of specific micro-level exercises affects, influences, impacts or reflects on the macro-level decision? Which is the degree of non-mediate interaction between the citizens and the powerholders?
Nevertheless, as some critics have noted, the idea of upstream public engagement itself is problematic since it supposes a linear conception of the innovation process, and its convenience turns to be limited when the goal is the co-construction of innovations. Conversely, what it has instead been suggested to be at stake is the degree of irreversibility of socio-technical networks as aligned by powerful actors involved in the development of nanotechnology. At present, it is clear that for nanotechnology a worldwide agenda has already been set.
Aside from the question of impact, there is need to reflect on what is original about this participatory governance of nanotechnology. Certainly, the degree of reflexivity that characterises the whole movement is one of the novel elements that has to be underlined. In fact, as for example the establishment of the NEG project to document the learning of the English groundbreaking participatory experiences attests, there is an ongoing social learning process form different degrees of experimentation that cannot be neglected or overlooked.
In keeping with reflection on societal aspects of nanotechnology, the integration of social sciences through public funding into the governance strategy, is proved both exiting and problematic, in view of the fact that social scientists move from a peripheral critical position to the role of experts in social engineering.
Finally, it is non less remarkable the fact that governments have turned not only to consultants but to diverse institutional players such as universities and academic institutions, R&D agencies, science communication companies, ONGs, and science centres and museums in order to enact, through funding, national participatory initiatives.

In sum, through making available to the CIPAST newsletter reader the activities here outlined, we would like encourage the critical reflection on the ongoing implementation of public participation and consider where do we stand in the ladder of citizen participation, with the aim at conducting public engagement towards genuine citizen empowerment and effective democratic governance of nanotechnology in society.

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