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Public Engagement and Nanotechnology in the UK: restoring trust or building robustness?

Public Engagement and Nanotechnology in the UK: restoring trust or building robustness?

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Published by Chris Groves
Concerns about the social sustainability of emerging technologies are identified as a motivation behind recent interest in public engagement as a mode of formal technology assessment, with nanoscale science and technology (NST) as a key example. Two rival understandings of engagement as a contribution to social sustainability, namely “restoring trust” and “building robustness” are identified. These different approaches are analysed as strategic responses to the politics of uncertainty in technological societies, each reflecting different assumptions about how to domesticate an intrinsically uncertain future. Government-sponsored experiments with upstream engagement around NST in the UK were surrounded by rhetoric concerning the need to build robustness into how nanotechnologies develop. It is argued, however, that assumptions held by policy and business actors about the strategic value of narratives of restoring trust, together with deeply embedded assumptions about how technological innovation creates the future, tended to place obstacles in the way of turning this aspiration into reality.
Concerns about the social sustainability of emerging technologies are identified as a motivation behind recent interest in public engagement as a mode of formal technology assessment, with nanoscale science and technology (NST) as a key example. Two rival understandings of engagement as a contribution to social sustainability, namely “restoring trust” and “building robustness” are identified. These different approaches are analysed as strategic responses to the politics of uncertainty in technological societies, each reflecting different assumptions about how to domesticate an intrinsically uncertain future. Government-sponsored experiments with upstream engagement around NST in the UK were surrounded by rhetoric concerning the need to build robustness into how nanotechnologies develop. It is argued, however, that assumptions held by policy and business actors about the strategic value of narratives of restoring trust, together with deeply embedded assumptions about how technological innovation creates the future, tended to place obstacles in the way of turning this aspiration into reality.

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Published by: Chris Groves on Jun 23, 2011
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1
Public Engagement and Nanotechnology in the UK: restoring trust or buildingrobustness?
Christopher GrovesChris GrovesESRC Centre for the Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (CESAGEN)Cardiff Universitywww.genomicsnetwork.ac.uk/cesagen/ 
i.Abstract
Concerns about the social sustainability of emerging technologies are identified as amotivation behind recent interest in public engagement as a mode of formal technologyassessment, with nanoscale science and technology (NST) as a key example. Two rivalunderstandings of engagement as a contribution to social sustainability, namely “restoringtrust” and “building robustness” are identified. These different approaches are analysed asstrategic responses to the politics of uncertainty in technological societies, each reflectingdifferent assumptions about how to domesticate an intrinsically uncertain future.Government-sponsored experiments with upstream engagement around NST in the UK weresurrounded by rhetoric concerning the need to build robustness into how nanotechnologiesdevelop. It is argued, however, that assumptions held by policy and business actors about thestrategic value of narratives of restoring trust, together with deeply embedded assumptionsabout how technological innovation creates the future, tended to place obstacles in the way of turning this aspiration into reality.
ii.Introduction
In discussions of sustainability, the amount of attention paid to concepts of 
 social 
sustainability, often phrased in terms of e.g. “maintaining social capital” (Goodland 2001), isoften lower than that paid to its ecological counterpart. By social sustainability is meant aquality that inheres both in individual capabilities (health, education, skills etc.) andcommunal relationships (trust, solidarity and so on), and which facilitates collective actiontowards improving general well-being and equity. Recent public policy interest in publicunease about science and technology reflects broader questions about the social sustainability(or otherwise) of technological societies, and what social factors may be responsible for thisunease.The emergence of nanoscale science and technology (NST) has been accompanied by promises of radical, even revolutionary benefits. It has also been accompanied byaffirmations from both industry and policy makers that whether or not NST is viewed as asocially legitimate technology may play a crucial role in shaping the viability anddevelopment of its future applications. Both private and public bodies have sought ways toaddress early on questions about, on the one hand, the many unknowns which surround the potential health and environmental impacts of NST, and on the other, about the wider impactsof what have been framed as its “ethical, legal and social implications” (ELSI) (NSTC 2007,
 
 p. 20).The social sustainability of NST, and science and technology more generally, may be taken todepend on
trust 
, given the dependence, in technological societies, of non-experts on specialistexpertise. An appropriate response may therefore be understood as “restoring trust inscience” (House of Lords 2000). However, to
restore
trust assumes a narrative in which anobstacle – public distrust – has accidentally arisen due to failures of communication betweenscience and society. These then need to be corrected in order to return society to a supposedly pre-existing condition of consensual trust in science (Wynne 2006).Alternatively, we might imagine the conditions of the social legitimacy and sustainability of  NST in quite different terms. Technological innovation brings with it multiple forms of uncertainty. If we accept this, society should perhaps recognise that applied scientificknowledge is, at best, uncommonly reliable and socially robust rather than absolutelyobjective, and that trust in it is therefore always provisionally achieved and vulnerable to being eroded. One way of establishing the “social robustness” of science is to involve all the public and private institutions active within technological innovation in discussion with other stakeholders, including publics, over the social value of technologies. Proponents of thisapproach sometimes justify it on the basis of a consequentialist ethical position in which the“democratisation” of technology is seen as producing indirect benefits, helping us “to derivegreater public benefit from new technologies” (Stilgoe 2007, p. 18). Though superficiallysimilar, this position should be distinguished from a political argument for buildingrobustness, i.e. that the democratic governance of technology may revive democratic politicsitself in the form of “technological citizenship” (e.g. Winner 1995).In the UK, the New Labour administration of 1997-2010 promoted such forms of discussionabout NST as “upstream engagement” (Dorbeck-Jung 2007, p. 263). Proponents of upstreamengagement in the UK saw it as enabling an approach to ELSI issues that did not simplyrelegate them to “an obligatory footnote to nanotechnology’s technological promise” (Stilgoe2007, p. 16). However, experiments with public engagement between 2005 and 2007 ran intoobstacles. On the one hand, they failed to explore concrete ways in which engagement couldhave determinate impact on innovation processes. On the other, they failed to adequatelydevelop genuinely multi-stakeholder fora, due to the very marginal role accorded to privateindustry. Subsequently, policy interpretations of upstream engagement in the context of NSThave sought to domesticate it, once again, within discourses of “restoring trust”, rather than“building robustness”.In this essay, I explore and analyse these issues as examples of what I call, after Peter Marris(1996), the “politics of uncertainty”. I begin in the first half of the paper by outlining aspecific analytical approach to the connection between innovation and the politics of uncertainty. This concerns how the framing, interpretation, management and production of uncertainty are central to social practice, and particularly to the governance of technologicalinnovation. I show how the narratives of “restoring trust” and “building robustness” rest ondifferent constructions of the politics of uncertainty. As such, they project differentrelationships with the future, and support different practical strategies for domesticatinguncertainty in the present. These strategies, in turn, have distinct effects on inequalities of  power created by the social production of risk and uncertainty. In the second half of the paper, I explore how the 2005-07 UK experiments with public engagement can be understoodin the light of this distinction between different strategies for managing uncertainty, beforeusing it to interpret new data on attitudes in the UK NST industry to public engagement. I
 
3argue that experiences with public engagement on NST in the UK show that there the keyobstacles faced by a “building robustness” approach are deep, normative assumptions abouthow the relationship between present and future should be conceived, resulting in strategicorientations towards uncertainty which are deeply embedded in public institutions as much asthey are in industry. My analysis thus details the social-structural basis for the institutionalconstraints in industry and government which limit the scope and impact of publicengagement, “such as wider policy drivers, the priorities of senior management, and theappreciation within these groups of the usefulness of involving members of the public in their work” (Jones et al. 2006, p. 4).
iii.Analytical perspectives: the politics of uncertainty
In this section, I introduce two concepts: that of a
 future horizon
, which describes the kinds of consistency that exist between future-regarding knowledge-practices, forms of action, andethical perspectives here in the present, and (after Peter Marris, 1996) that of 
 strategies for domesticating uncertainty
, conceived of as ways of building concrete future-regarding perspectives that reflect particular future horizons, and, in the process, provide legitimationfor policies and programmes of action in the present. I will then explore how these conceptsenable us to understand conflicting positions regarding the governance of technologicalinnovationSome of the roots of contemporary technological societies have been traced to ancient Greek conceptions of the need to master natural contingencies that expose humankind to a conditionof scarcity and uncertainty, and subject it to the “realm of necessity” and fatality (Arendt1998). Francis Bacon’s aim of “restoring perfection” to the world (Ovitt Jr. 1987) relied onimproving humanity’s knowledge of natural laws to the point where it was possible toremodel nature and humanity itself through the technological application of science, in the process freeing human beings from their dependence upon unpredictable nature. Baconianrepresentations of the relationship between humanity and nature, as represented in 17
th
century natural philosophy, were gradually transformed into 18
th
and 19
th
century visions of the future as open terrain for human progress, in which human nature and the “second nature”of culture are gradually incorporated into an expanding realm of malleable “natural” material(Adam and Groves 2007; Groves 2007). This involves a re-visioning of the future as such, inwhich new forms of knowledge, ways of coordinating social action, and reflections on themeaning of moral justification in a rationalistic world come together to construct the futuredifferently to the forms it took in e.g. pre-Christian and pre-Enlightenment cultures. In short,what people
expected 
of the future changed radically. The organisation of social practiceincreasingly reflected the goal of material progress, supported by new intellectual foundationsthat represented the maximisation of measurable benefits as the criterion of social progress.These same foundations, provided by positivistic sociology and the emerging discipline of economics, set out what were thought to be the immutable laws according to which these benefits could be realised and efficiently distributed throughout societies. The horizon againstwhich the future was projected in the 19
th
century and into the 20
th
was no longer the abstract,mechanical future of natural philosophy, nor even the open, humanistic-teleological future of collective political action conceived in the 18
th
century, but an empty future, a frontier of  progress continually crossed by commodification, rational economic planning, andsociologically-informed political intervention - a
terra nullius
open for colonisation andcontrol (Adam and Groves 2007, pp. 72-75).Against the background of an empty future horizon, particular relationships between forms of knowledge, modes of action, and normative principles coalesced, reshaping in the process a

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