Nanotech Database

Article Title:
Nanotechnology, Governance and Public Deliberation: What Role for the Social Sciences?

Macnaghten, Phil

Journal Information:
Science Communication
Vol. 27, Num. 2


Macnaughten et al. examine the dynamics that drive policy in the United States and the UK, showing how social sciences do and do not influece the course of nanotechnology's development. They propose an agenda for the role of social science in nanotechnology. "Nanotechnology represents an extraordinary opportunity to build in social science from the outset," say the authors. Social science should not be left to mull over the fragments, the "impacts" of technology -- rather it should be involved reflexively at all stages of development. Why these technologies? Why not others? Who needs them, adn what human purposes are driving them? Under what conditions will they be enacted, and who sets those conditions? Who is controlling them? Who benefits from them? Can they be trusted? These are the questions that ought to be raised early on. The drawing in of social science ought not be for "marketing" purposes, for shaping public opinion favorably toward innovation. Currently, nanotechnology is seen as promise and as threat. In the US, government committment to "ELSI" concerns was begun in the Human Genome Project. However, such concerns can be reduced to a down-stream "bolt on" -- a fix to whatever might go wrong, a way to ensure success. The authors hope there will be room for questioning what "success" might be. In the UK, there are more institutional methods for "public engagement," but at the end of the 2004 RS/RAE nanotechnology study, there was disappointingly little government committment to funding ELSI concerns. "Engagement" ought to mean that the public needs to help scientists evaluate, not their knowledge, but rather their visions for the use and ends of knowledge. Macnaughten et. al propose five veins of social science research activities: imaginaries, public engagement, governance, globalization and emergence. They suggest that social science can contribute to policy debates in "real time."