Strengthening societal engagement with nanotechnologies

GoNano project website

Why should we strengthen societal engagement? That may be the question at the forefront of the mind of many readers. Or what does it even mean? In this blog post, I present a few arguments for why actors in the research and innovation world of nanotechnologies and other key enabling technologies should care about societal engagement. I will also explain a bit of what it is by using the Horizon 2020 project “Governing Nanotechnologies through Societal Engagement” (GoNano) as an example.
When opening any policy document on strategies for innovation, development and growth, science and technology are presented as keys to solving societal challenges. However, tackling a societal challenge such as health, involves also understanding how ‘health’, ‘disease’ or ‘risk’ are experienced and understood by individuals and organisations, and what contextual factors, like norms, values and culture influence behaviours and beliefs.
Experiences and opportunities to act might also differ. Researchers might disagree on the evidence or solutions and politicians might need to weigh in other interests and needs than anticipated in a scientific study. There might also be one or more different types of solutions proposed (e.g. business, behavioural, scientific), or we might not be able to deal with several societal challenges at the same time. Who in the end should decide? Who should act, why and how?
The key to this quest for mutual learning and understanding is recognising that all actors have something to teach each other – and living in democracies, we should make sure that anyone who is affected by an issue or a solution is at least heard in the process of developing it. Engaging with and responding to societal needs and concerns are therefore increasingly recognised as central objectives to better understanding societal challenges, and their solutions when innovating responsibly.

Societal engagement with nanotechnologies

Nanotechnologies have the longest history of societal engagement from all of the key enabling technology (KET) areas. Under the Nanotechnologies, Advanced Materials, Biotechnology and Advanced Manufacturing and Processing (NMBP) funding programme, projects on outreach and dialogue with societal actors have been funded for nearly fifteen years. The programme gives a unique opportunity to take advantage of the lessons learned with nanotechnologies and societal engagement when we take the next steps towards ensuring that new technologies express European values.

The GoNano project builds on experiences from previous projects on societal engagement with nanotechnologies and public engagement in general, to pilot co-creation that explores the capacity for researchers to act on societal input. The aim is to develop policy recommendations for research and innovation that are more responsive to societal values and needs.

The project addresses two of the four levels of societal engagement from a 2018 report on reaching out to newcomers and societal engagement in industrial technologies, by the Advisory Group of the NMBP.

According to the report, societal engagement is increasingly recognised as a key element for aligning research and innovation with the aim of solving societal challenges. The report sets out four levels at which societal engagement is relevant to pursue:

  1. Science and technology policy-making
  2. Open research agenda setting
  3. Research steering
  4. Engagement directly in research and innovation

The GoNano project aims to address levels 1 and 4.

Risk perception and values from engaging with citizens

GoNano word cloud

Starting with level 4: engagement in research and innovation, GoNano is piloting an approach for the co-creation of product cases, including for example suggestions for research lines, products or the practical implementation of future nanotechnologies in different sectors and countries. These sectors are food, in the Czech Republic, energy in Spain and health in the Netherlands.

The process is designed to facilitate the participation of citizens, researchers and societal stakeholders in a four-step process of co-creation. The project kicked off the “circle of co-creation” in the fall of 2018 with an exploration of citizen values and needs. Currently, researchers and stakeholders are suggesting product cases that aim to address these needs and values.

Through the co-creation process, we found that a number of values and needs cut across all the citizen workshops. They include sustainable development and consumption, human health, environmental protection, safety aspects, affordability, and accessibility.

Citizens expressed various values and needs when it comes to nanotechnologies in food, energy and health. The varieties of these values and needs can be explained by their origins in both fears and a general understanding of the great potential that nanotechnologies have. The more specific requirements are mostly connected to safety, the environment, human health and well-being, affordability, and accessibility of  future technologies .

We also found well-known repertoires of optimism and concern about nanotechnologies. Europeans have consistently been shown to be cautiously optimistic in relation to nanotechnologies. We also found that citizens recognise that benefits do not follow automatically from technological or scientific advancement. In other words, engaging with citizens has a better chance of success if concerns are properly analysed. E.g. by looking at how a value such as safety is understood and experienced across different groups (citizens, policy-makers, researchers etc.), and then creating room for deliberation and co-creation of a solution that takes those into account.

Building on the co-creation process, the project will produce policy recommendations and white papers aimed at addressing the first level of societal engagement: Science and technology policy-making. It aims to show how conditions for research and innovation in nanotechnologies could be designed to encourage responsiveness to societal needs. Such responsiveness is a basic condition if research and innovation aims to help solve societal challenges that are complex and consist of more than scientific and technical challenges.

The GoNano project will write these papers with input from the communities it addresses, as well as others experienced in working with societal engagement.

As the project unfolds, GoNano seeks to gain further insight into the preconditions for enhanced responsiveness in nanotechnologies.

Lise Bitsch

Lise Bitsch, Coordinator - Governing Nanotechnologies through societal engagement (GoNano)

I am a senior Project Manager at the Danish Board of Technology Foundation (DBT), manager for the “Ethics and Society” sub-project in the EU flagship Human Brain Project (HBP), and coordinator of the EU co-creation project GoNano (Governing Nanotechnologies through societal engagement).

I have a background in Science and Technology Studies (STS). At the DBT, I am the team lead for the Foundation’s activities on engagements with publics as well as professional stakeholders in the HBP.

I have a PhD in Science and Technology Studies (STS), and have worked as a post doc in the field of science communication.

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