European Public Advice on Nanobiotechnology—Four Convergence Seminars
In order to explore public views on nanobiotechnology (NBT), convergence seminars were held in four places in Europe; namely in Visby (Sweden), Sheffield (UK), Lublin (Poland), and Porto (Portugal). A convergence seminar is a new form of public participatory activity that can be used to deal systematically with the uncertainty associated for instance with the development of an emerging technology like nanobiotechnology. In its first phase, the participants are divided into three “scenario groups” that discuss different future scenarios. In the second phase, the participants are regrouped into three “convergence groups”, each of which contains representatives from each of the three groups from the first phase. In the final third phase, all participants meet for a summary discussion. This pilot project had two aims: (1) to develop and assess the new methodology and (2) to gather advice and recommendations from the public that may be useful for future decisions on nanobiotechnology (NBT). Participants emphasized that they wanted the technology to focus on solutions to environmental and medical problems and to meet the needs of developing countries. The need for further public participation and deliberation on NBT issues seemed to be acknowledged by all participants. Many of them also raised equality concerns. Views on the means by which NBT should be steered into socially useful directions were more divided. In particular, different views were expressed on how much regulation of company activities is needed to curb unwanted developments. The participants’ responses in a questionnaire indicate that the methodology of the convergence seminars was successful for decision-making under uncertainty. In particular, the participants stated that their advice was influenced both by access to different possible future developments and by the points of view of their co-participants, which is what the method is specifically intended to achieve.
KeywordsConvergence seminars Public participation Nanotechnology Nanobiotechnology Hypothetical retrospection Technology assessment Future studies Ethics
The need for public involvement in the development of nanotechnology has often been called upon, as part of a general concern to democratise decision-making on emerging technologies [4, 10, 13]. There seems to be a consensus among those who have written on the topic that the public has to be involved particularly in discussions over the risks and the ethical issues that are associated with this technology. Some of the issues that are suggested for ethical deliberation are the potential negative impacts of nanoparticles on human health and the environment, societal issues of justice and distribution of nanotechnology, novel ethical dilemmas concerning privacy and cognitive enhancement which may arise from the some implementation of nanotechnology, regulatory strategies when facing the high degree of uncertainty of the impact of the technology, and even the more radically perilous scenarios of runaway nanomachines [1, 5, 7, 10, 11, 13]. As a result several public engagement activities on nanotechnology have been arranged in the past few years . Our project was one of the first to focus on nanobiotechnology (NBT) specifically, rather than nanotechnology as a whole.
This pilot project used a new model for public participatory activities called Convergence Seminars. This method was developed and used for the first time within the scope of a European interdisciplinary nanobiotechnology and ethics project . The reason for our choice and development of this methodology is that it combines public participation with a systematic approach to the uncertainty associated with the development of NBT. The theoretical basis of the convergence seminars is a model of decision-making called hypothetical retrospection (see the following section for more detail) .
The objective of the project was two-fold: first to test a new model for public participation, and second to gain advice from the public that may be relevant for decisions on nanobiotechnology. Our concluding discussion of the results follows these two objectives and comes in two parts: one that reports on the input given by participants to decisions on NBT and one that evaluates the methodology itself.
As mentioned this project was performed as part of NanoBioRAISE, a 6th Framework Programme (Science & Society Co-ordination Action) funded by the European Commission. in 2006 and early 2007.1 We have carried out our convergence seminars on NBT in four distinct cultural regions of Europe: Visby (Sweden), Sheffield (UK), Lublin (Poland), and Porto (Portugal). In Section Theoretical Background to the Methodology we describe the motivation for the construction of convergence seminars. Section Methods describes the methodology including the practical arrangements of this exercise. In Section Results Concerning Participants’ Views on NBT the major results of the study are summarized. In section Methodological Results we evaluate the success of the methodology according to our theoretical objectives.
Theoretical Background to the Methodology
Participative methods for technology assessment and decision advice have been developed within the broad tradition of decision-oriented technology studies that began with the introduction of Technology Assessment (TA) in the 1960s and early 1970s. Initial hopes of developing efficient means of predicting the consequences of emerging technologies were not fulfilled. The discipline was therefore reoriented towards more realistic tasks. In the 1980s, participatory Technology Assessment (pTA) came up as an alternative to traditional more expert-driven procedures, foremost in Denmark and The Netherlands. The purpose was to improve public influence and participation in decision-making on future technologies. Various participatory methods such as dialogue forums, focus groups, future-panels and consensus conferences were developed for this purpose [2, 9]. In our view, one of the weaknesses of most of these approaches is their insufficient attention to uncertainties and in particular to the several alternative future developments that need to be taken into account in most assessments of future technology.
In a parallel development, methods based on the systematic use of several scenarios have been developed for expert-driven decision support [3, 12]. Scenario planning has its roots in post World War II defence planning in the U.S. Major contributions were made by Royal Dutch/Shell in the 1970s. Scenario planning is used in corporations and increasingly by governments and international organizations (such as the International Panel on Climate Change IPCC). The standard method is to develop a handful of external scenarios that cover factors and developments beyond the decision-maker’s control, and then combine them with various possible responses and actions by the decision-maker. Scenario development often takes place in workshops that involve experts and stakeholders. The finished scenarios are then used by decision-makers in exercises aimed at developing insights about future uncertainties and possibilities that can be used to improve decision-making. [3, 12]
In the last decade, nanotechnology has become the focus of increasing amount of public participation activities in several different countries .2 The methods used in these attempts include many classic educative methods such as lectures, seminars, and question-hours with experts etc. They also include some of the participative methods developed in technology assessment, such as focus groups. However, just as in previous work in technology assessment, the combination of participative methodology with the systematic use of different scenarios to deal with uncertainties and divergent possibilities seems to be absent (or at least very uncommon). It was in order to improve over previous work in this respect that we decided to develop the method of convergence seminars for application to the problems of NBT.
Convergence seminars are based on a theoretical approach to rational decision-making under risk and uncertainty that has been described more in detail in a recent article by one of the authors . Like many other philosophical ideas, it consists in the refinement and systematic application of a pattern of argumentation that is prevalent in non-philosophical discussions. One of the most common types of arguments about future possibilities consists in referring to how one might in the future come to evaluate the actions one takes now. These arguments are often stated in terms of predicted regret: “Do not do that. You may come to regret it.” This is basically a sound type of argument; from the viewpoint of classical instrumental rationality it is irrational to perform an action whose effects will be unsatisfactory. Decision-stability, in the sense that we continue to consider a decision correct after we have made it, is clearly a desideratum. Decision-making under risk and uncertainty will be improved if the decision-maker seriously considers possible future developments. Therefore, such hypothetical retrospection can be used as a means to achieve more well-considered social decisions under uncertainty. Just as we can improve our moral decisions by considering them from the perspectives of other concerned individuals, we can also improve them by considering alternative future perspectives.
However, although the idea of regret-avoidance is a reasonable starting-point, hypothetical retrospection cannot just be accounted for in terms of avoiding decisions that you may come to regret. Regret is often unavoidable for the simple reason that it may arise in response to information that was not available at the time of decision. Hence, in a systematized application of hypothetical retrospection, regret-avoidance has to be replaced by more carefully carved-out criteria.
Each evaluation of a possible future development should refer to that branch of future development in its full length, up to the moment at which the retrospection is enacted. This means that the evaluation is not restricted to the outcome but also covers the process leading up to it. This is necessary in order to ensure that moral considerations that pertain to the rights and responsibilities of different parties are not programmatically excluded from the evaluation.
Each such evaluation should refer to the decision in relation to the information (actually) available at the time when the decision was made, not the information (hypothetically) available at the time of the retrospection. This is because the decision-relevant moral argument is not of the form “Given what I now know I should then have...” but rather “Given what I then knew, l should then have...”
Each such evaluation may refer to the need to be prepared for other branches of possible development. We do not today consider the decision to buy a fire extinguisher for our department 5 years ago to have been a wrongful decision, even though we have had no use for it. For the same reason we should not have considered it wrong if, 5 years ago, we had evaluated it in a hypothetical retrospection of a scenario of five coming years without a fire.
Hypothetical retrospection should be performed with the actual moral values one has at the time when the actual deliberation takes place, not the values one predicts that one will have at the future point in time at which the hypothetical retrospection is staged.
Since it is not possible to investigate all possible branches of future development, a selection is necessary. The major criterion in that selection should be to include the worst outcomes that each decision alternative can give rise to, This can be achieved by identifying as far as possible, for each alternative course of action, the branches in which the choice of this alternative will be most difficult to defend in hypothetical retrospection.
In a certain respect, hypothetical retrospection goes in the opposite direction of much current moral theory: it adds concreteness instead of abstracting from concrete detail. We consider this methodology to be particularly useful in areas where there is considerable uncertainty and where standard quantitative methods for risk assessment are not applicable. Nanotechnology is clearly such an area . This makes it an excellent testing-ground for the development of a methodology that employs hypothetical retrospection.
The Basic Structure of Convergence Seminars
Several different scenarios should be discussed individually, where each scenario explores possible future consequences of decisions that we might take now.
A comparative discussion takes place in which each scenario is taken into account and evaluated against the others.
The procedure should be easy to apply, and performable in a few hours.
In order to satisfy criterion (i), a set of concrete scenarios has to be developed for the discussions. These scenarios should be constructed in accordance with the requirements for hypothetical retrospection summarized above. Hence, they should all bring us to some future point in time, but each scenario should lead us to a different branch of future development. Each scenario should describe in outline the respective branch in its full length, not only the “final state” at the point in time at which the hypothetical retrospection is enacted. The focus should be on some decision in the present, or near-present time, that the participants are asked to evaluate from the viewpoint of their scenario. Furthermore, the different scenarios should be selected so that they represent, for different alternative decisions, branches in which these decisions give rise to problems that make them difficult to defend in hypothetical retrospection.
Ideally a large number of scenarios should be included in the procedure. However, in order to satisfy criterion (iii), the standard procedure proposed and used here employs only three scenarios. For the same reason, participants are divided into groups and each scenario is discussed in detail by one group only. In order to satisfy criterion (ii), i.e. the comparative analysis, this first phase of one-scenario discussions has to be followed by procedures in which participants from the different groups in the first phase exchange experiences. This is initially done in small groups that are formed by regrouping the participants so that each new “convergence” group includes a representative from each of the scenario groups. In the third and final phase the participants are assembled for a concluding discussion about what advice they would like to give decision-makers who decide on the development of NBT. The term “convergence” thus refers to the converging structure of this seminar model—not necessarily to a convergence of opinions amongst the participants.
The following schedule describes the procedure for convergence seminars as used in this project. The seminars took 2.5–3 h.
Introduction (10 min)
The seminar moderator gives a brief presentation of the overarching project NanoBioRAISE, the idea behind and structure of the convergence seminars, as well as the topic for discussion (nanobiotechnology). The participants are then divided into three groups. These “scenario groups” (A, B, and C) are directed to separate rooms for their discussions.
Phase 1 (30–40 min)
Each scenario group begins by reading a brief two-part scenario (Appendix 1). The first part of the scenario is the same for all three variants and briefly describes the “current state of affairs” and what kind of decision is to be made (see section Participants and Practical Arrangements). It is designed in such a way that the participants can place themselves in the role of the decision-makers. The second part of the scenario is different for each of the three groups. While all three scenarios bring the participants about 15 years into the future, each scenario represents a different course of development. After reading their group-specific scenario, each group discusses three general questions about their opinions on what happens in, and what they can learn from, the scenario. In order to allow for a free discussion, this phase is neither moderated nor recorded.
Phase 2 (40 min)
The participants are rearranged into “convergence groups” where each group consists of at least one representative from each of the previous scenario groups. This phase begins with one person from each scenario group briefly recapitulating their scenario and their subsequent discussion (they may also bring a copy of their scenarios with them to the new group.) The group then discusses questions similar to those in Phase 1, but here the discussion is intended to involve an explicit comparison between the scenarios (Appendix 2). Just as in Phase 1, this phase is neither moderated nor recorded.
Pause (10–15 min)
In the pause all the participants meet for refreshments.
Phase 3 (30–40 min)
All the participants meet up for the final convergence meeting. To begin with each convergence group gives a short account of their discussion and any conclusions drawn within their group. After these presentations there is a joint discussion led by the seminar moderator. The moderator’s role is to ensure that the most central and controversial issues in the previous discussions are brought to the table as well as to encourage all participants’ contribution to the discussion. This session is audio-recorded.
Following the discussion all participants are required to fill in a questionnaire that allows them to express their views individually. This questionnaire also asks them to express their views on the seminar itself (Appendix 3).
After the Seminar
The participants receive a letter of thanks that includes a list of links for further information on NBT and its ethical/societal issues, as well as the contact details for the seminar instructor in case of additional comments.
The Three Scenarios
Since the principal applications of NBT will likely be in medicine and diagnostics, these areas were naturally given a central role in the scenarios for the convergence seminars. However we also found it important to cover potential applications in areas such as information and communication technology (ICT); energy production and conservation; and water purification. We acknowledge that there are other important areas of NBT application that we might have chosen for the scenarios, such as food production and agriculture. Because of practical limitations these areas were not included in the scenarios but some were occasionally touched upon in the discussions. The scenario narratives were based on material taken from scientific articles and reports on nano— and biotechnology [main sources: 10, 11, 13]. Since many of the more crucial applications of NBT are anticipated only in the mid— to long-term time frame, the hypothetical decision making situation was placed in the short-term future, namely in year 2010 and the three scenarios, each representing a different course of development, were placed in year 2020.
An essential part of the planning of the convergence seminars was to construct scenarios that would communicate potential issues of risk and ethical controversies in the future development of NBT research and applications. This was done in accordance with the criteria for hypothetical retrospection stated in section Theoretical Background to the Methodology. In order to make the potential conflicts come out clearly we wanted the scenarios to focus on different possible ethical and social issues from the debates on NBT. One scenario focused primarily on issues of fairness in exposure to health risks and in misuses of medical applications (B). Another scenario focused on the use of NBT in diagnostics and surveillance with concomitant issues of infringements of privacy and freedom of choice (C). A third scenario focused on the competitive disadvantages that Europe might face by severely restricting the development of NBT while major non-European countries would reap the economic advantages from NBT (A). For the complete scenarios, as given to the participants at the seminar, see Appendix 1.
Participants and Practical Arrangements
Summary of the participants at the four convergence seminars
Number of participants)
Characteristics of participants
Members of youth and adult society for nature conservation
Sheffield, United Kingdom
Students and lay members of a science discussion club.
Students in principally linguistics and architecture, 2 senior researchers nanotechnology-related fields.
Non-academic administrative staff at University, a few students in the humanities and social science.
We endeavoured to recruit participants with a limited background within technology or natural sciences and in particular with little to no prior experience or knowledge of nanotechnology. This was partly in order to avoid stakeholder interest and partly to hinder the discussion being dominated by concern for technical rather than ethical issues. However, there were a few (1–3) participants with some background in technology or natural sciences in each of the seminars. In Lublin we had two researchers within nanotechnology related fields among the participants. We actually ended up finding this rather constructive for the discussion. See section Methodological Results for an account of the effects that this had on the seminar discussions.
The lack of explicit scientific moderation is of course problematic in relation to the accuracy of technological and scientific statements made in the discussions. Of course, as we emphasised to the participants, we were interested in their ethical response to the scenarios (which were of course based on scientific articles and reports), not on any attempt that they might make to assess their scientific credibility. Still we want to acknowledge that there remained a legitimate interest in and concern for the scientific and technological side of the scenarios. To some extent these issues were addressed by the moderator who not only was present in the final discussion but also visited each of the groups in the first two phases at least once, and tried to clear up potential basic issues. As previously mentioned there was also a list of recommended readings provided to the participants at the end of the seminar. In Porto we held a seperate question–and–answer session with a nano-researcher after the seminar itself, which was well received by the participants.
Group sizes in convergence groups with three scenarios
3 groups of 2–3 persons
2 groups of 3–4 persons
3 groups of 3–4 persons
3 groups of 3–4 persons
3 groups of 4–5 persons
3 groups of 4–5 persons
15 persons (maximum)
3 groups of 5 persons
3 groups of 5 persons
The local organizers were responsible for coordinating the time and venue for the seminar. One of the authors, Marion Godman, attended all of the seminars and was also the moderator at three of them. The Porto seminar was held in Portuguese and was moderated by João Diogo Silva. No monetary compensation was offered to the participants but coffee and a light meal was provided at the end of each seminar.
Overview of the Four Seminars
The first seminar was held at the University of Gotland in Visby, Sweden, on May 4th 2006. The eight participants in the group were members of local branches of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and “Fältbiologerna”, a youth environmental organization. The seminar was held in Swedish. The scenarios and seminar discussions were translated by us to and from English.
The second seminar was held at the School of Law at the University of Sheffield, UK on July 28th 2006. The seminar was hosted in cooperation with the Sheffield Institute for Biotechnological Law and Ethics. The group of twelve participants consisted of students from various disciplines and members of a science discussion club.
The third seminar was held at the Maria Curie—Sklodowska University, Lublin, Poland on November 25th 2006. This seminar was held in close cooperation with the Nanotechnology Centre at the same University. The group of thirteen participants consisted principally of students in linguistics, architecture, and chemistry. There were also two senior researchers from nanotechnology-related fields participating. During the first two un-moderated phases of the seminar the participants were free to hold their discussion in either Polish or English. The third phase was held in English, and the questionnaire was also answered in English.
The fourth seminar was held at the Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology in Porto, Portugal on December 6th 2006. The seminar was hosted in close cooperation with the Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology (IBMC). The group of seven participants consisted of students and non-academic staff such as administrators at IBMC. The entire seminar was held in Portuguese. The scenarios were translated in advance by João Diogo Silva at IBMC who also moderated the concluding seminar discussion and translated the participants’ questionnaires and the recorded transcript of the final discussion into English.
See Table 1 for overview of participants at each convergence seminar.
Results Concerning Participants’ Views on NBT
The central issue for the discussion of the four convergence seminars was what advice the participants would give to decision-makers about the development of NBT. This was reflected in the different phases of group discussions, the final discussion, as well as in the questionnaire responses obtained at the end of the seminar.
The participants’ comments were documented in two ways: the first was a tape recording of the final discussion at the end of the seminar and the second was the questionnaire that the participants were asked to complete following those discussions.
Summary of participants’ advice to decision-makers about the future of NBT
Specific benefits for developing countries
Novel inventions and applications
Prioritise international regulation and/or agencies
Regulation consistent with other technologies
Regulation to avoid fallibility & uncertainty
Careful control over potential malevolent use
Caution against over-regulation
Emerging ethical issues
Human enhancement vs. diversity
Freedom of choice
Public engagement and transparency
Promote NBT research
Restrict commercial influence on research
Recognise NBT as an interdisciplinary enterprise
Introducing the participants with a range of possibilities for applying NBT brought the focus on what areas of research and development should be prioritised. One of the key recommendations was that governments and research institutes should set research priorities that correspond to vital global needs. Environmental applications, such as energy production, environmental soil remediation, and water desalination were unanimously encouraged. Another area that received strong support was applications that would benefit developing countries. This was particularly emphasised in Lublin where participants were concerned that the richest and politically most powerful countries were the ones defining the areas of priority without giving much attention to those medical applications that might benefit African countries. They saw it as problematic that already wealthy countries perform the majority of the research and subsequently reap the social and economic benefits.
Medicine was in general encouraged as an area of priority. Applications, such as drug delivery and tissue engineering were emphasised as important. In Visby, however, it was cautioned that advanced medical applications may become a pretext for not dealing with the root of the problem or may even replace some preventative health care. Also in Sheffield a few medical applications were considered quite controversial, and medicine was singled out as an area where it would be particularly important to have lay persons present for consultation.
In general the participants advocated that research priorities be aligned with crucial needs, i.e. medicine and the environment, rather than with what were considered to be technological novelties such as military applications, applications for bodily or cognitive enhancement, and, to a somewhat less extent, ICT. One notable exception was an opinion expressed in Porto that advanced novel applications were in fact essential for developing a more advanced society. Undoubtedly the emphasis on medicine and the environment in the scenarios played a role in this context. This is further discussed in section Methodological Results.
Access, Distribution, and Equality
The concern that NBT might be developed to serve the needs of a fortunate few was conveyed in various ways by the seminar participants. Although it was believed that researchers and industry often express the best intentions to create a cheap and accessible technology, it was also believed that those promises have fallen through in other areas such as genetic technologies (Visby) and the pharmaceutical industry (Porto). In Visby participants doubted that NBT applications would help developing countries and even feared that these countries might in fact be used as guinea pigs for testing out new products. As mentioned above many seminar participants advised that the advance of NBT should be accompanied by a commitment to the goal of developing applications that would truly benefit the developing world.
While it was on the one hand argued that technological development should not increase the gap between different countries, it was also argued that no part of a country’s population should be left behind in the development. Participants in Lublin suggested particular subsidies for certain treatments in order to make them generally affordable. In Sheffield there was a debate on whether the future use of advanced chips and sensors would give unjust advantages to the already rich and powerful.
Economic interests were recognised as an important drive in the technological development. Participants judged that research generates further economic growth and is therefore essential for social welfare. Nevertheless, in both Lublin and Visby it was argued that economic interests should not be the main drive since economic growth would be a too narrow and short-sighted aim for NBT development. Similarly participants expressed the need to set political priorities separately from business interests—as it was believed that the latter would be incorporated into the development at any rate.
The role of industry and private companies in research and regulation was also debated. In Sheffield it was claimed that as much as industry should be engaged in research, they must also be held accountable for the products they develop or put to market. In Porto it was proposed that industry should be assigned a role in informing the public of research and product development. In both Porto and Sheffield it was stressed that the regulatory body should be as independent as possible from the influence of industry.
Encouraging Public Debate and Deliberation
Public participation in the development of NBT was strongly encouraged at all of the seminars. Among the arguments brought forward for involving the public were principled democratic arguments, such as “people have the right to choose” (Visby, Porto); the need to avoid a further rift between science and the public (Porto); and that public participation would be instrumental for securing that NBT will be beneficial to different members of society (Lublin).
In Sheffield it was seen as important to have democratic control over the regulation by including as many actors as possible, thereby avoiding a regulation that would only fit a particular actor’s agenda. However here it was also emphasised that while the public should be involved in the debate over policy and regulation, it was equally important that the scientific information they receive should be as unbiased as possible. Some participants argued that it would be counter-productive for democracy to include potentially biased public opinions.
The discussion in Porto highlighted the need to create various forums for debate so as to promote the curiosity and participation of the public. At several points in the discussion a comparison was made with an appreciated concurrent debate and referendum about abortion. The group however was divided on who should be responsible for initiating the flow of information and public engagement. Amongst the suggestions were scientists and universities, national governments (and commissions), the EU, industry, and individual citizens themselves.
Research and the Risks of Regulation
At all seminars further NBT research was encouraged in one way or another, with the possible exception of Visby where further research did not receive any explicit support. In Visby the participants were in fact inclined to evoke the precautionary principle for several areas of research. In contrast, participants in Lublin claimed that scientists must always be able to work on their basic research question to the end, or else researchers might end up with a greater problem than they had started with.
Over-regulation was also acknowledged as a potential problem; not simply because of missing out on the benefits of potential applications, but also because certain countries with strong regulation might be left behind by those whose regulation was less rigid. In Lublin the solution was to have a softer regulation and to leave it in responsible hands. In Porto it was believed that regulation should “fit” the NBT development rather than becoming an impediment. The participants there expressed concern about the economical risks one would take with premature regulation.
Although the participants at the seminars thought that it was important to attain some homogeny between the levels of NBT regulation (use of nanoparticles etc.), they also recognised that there were significant obstacles to enforcing a global regulation. Several participants, particularly in Sheffield, expressed considerable scepticism toward the possibility of international regulation. The GMO debate was referred to as an example of how international regulation had been hindered by differences in cultural and scientific traditions. Therefore it was emphasised that national and local powers should be in place before one attempted to reach a consensus internationally. In Porto the EU was emphasised as an important intermediate step between national and global regulation.
In Sheffield an argued prerequisite for international regulation was to extend the amount of international cooperation in research. A similar view was expressed in Lublin where it was also proposed that particular areas of research be chosen for international cooperation. Areas suggested were those that would solve problems of global warming and pollution—which the participants then claimed would assist the achievement of common standards in regulation. Just as in Sheffield, participants in Lublin recognised that cultural differences might become an obstacle to international cooperation although here the relevance of such differences seemed a lot more controversial.
Despite the expressed doubts toward the possibility of global regulation many participants held that it should be maintained as a goal. In Lublin and Visby it was recommended that cooperation across borders be extended by establishing an international agency for monitoring nanotechnology, modelled on the IAEA. Another suggestion from Visby was that medical applications of nanotechnology be confined to use within certain hospitals, and would then receive closer monitoring and control.
Uncertainty in NBT Development
In the seminars in Sheffield and Visby it was recognised that there is a high degree of uncertainty regarding both future societal trends and technological progress, and that predictions made by researchers, decision-makers, and the public alike are fallible. In Sheffield for instance, it was suggested that regulation and bureaucracy are important as they create inertia that was considered to be a good thing. Such delays in funding and in the technological development were believed to facilitate foresight into long-term applications and side effects. Participants in Visby also encouraged inertia in the NBT development, as it would allow the public to keep up. With respect to military applications the Precautionary Principle was strongly advocated in Visby.
In Sheffield it was emphasised that as many aspects of NBT are still uncertain, they might possibly fall outside current regulatory regimes of other technologies. However here it was also agreed that any NBT regulation should not be independent of policies used for other technology; but rather reflect and be integrated with such policies.
Emerging Ethical Issues
The emerging ethical issues of potential NBT applications and products received considerable attention and debate at all seminars, perhaps especially at the seminars in Sheffield and Lublin. The participants generally recommended that the public be engaged in the ethical debate over the possible effects of technology at all stages of development. Other recommendations for addressing the ethical concerns were to involve a range of researchers from different scientific disciplines in the NBT development (Visby, Sheffield) along with establishing governmental scientific commissions (Porto). Perhaps one of the main outcomes of these discussions was that they directly addressed the question of what the controversial ethical issues might be. They also provided good examples of how debates over such issues might run, once the relevant NBT applications are available.
“Some people want to stay in the village and some want to leave. People that don’t want to leave shouldn’t be forced to; they should have a choice. We shouldn’t get to the stage where it’s a blanket decision to accept technological progress.” (Participant, Sheffield)
The concern for privacy referred to potential applications in both medicine—such as the opportunity for early diagnosis and sensor monitoring—and surveillance technologies. In Porto there was a debate on whether NBT really would imply any greater infringements on privacy. Some felt that it would be a natural and improved development of already existing techniques whereas others claimed that the smaller-scale surveillance would be a considerably greater threat to individual integrity.
“I find the evasion of privacy very disturbing. Instead of having your bio-medical information held in a central database, it could be held within you. So when you went to the doctor you could provide it, giving you a ‘key’ maybe. Maybe the emergency services could have one as well but you still have to make the decision of who can have instant access to the information.” (Participant, Sheffield)
“If it is used to design or create super-humans—perhaps that’s where we should put our restrictions. We can use the technology to cure Alzheimer’s disease but one cannot receive similar treatment to enhance the memory.” (Participant, Visby)
Several participants were troubled by the prospects that some medical applications could also be developed to enhance different human abilities and create a “robot-society” (Visby) or a “race of super-humans” (Lublin). The problem with such a development was not only that it might imply a radical departure from “natural” abilities, but also that it might iron out the good things about diversity (Sheffield). The prospect that NBT might yield long-term opportunities for cognitive or intellectual enhancement was the greatest worry. In Sheffield participants feared that the negative implications of having a superior memory would not be properly investigated, i.e. what happens if certain tragic (or trivial) information cannot be forgotten? While participants in Sheffield expressed concern about nanomedicine simply becoming luxury treatment for the wealthy and the educated, in Lublin participants were instead concerned that enforcing heavy restrictions would not be defensible in view of the individual’s right to choose.
Freedom of Choice and Longevity
“Knowing to what extent something is good at an individual level—for instance curing Alzheimer’s disease is good—does not necessarily mean it is good at a broader societal level. We’ll have even more elderly people in our society than now. This could cause some social imbalances.” (Participant, Porto)
Apart from the advice given in the seminars, in the following section we would like to assess the outcome of the seminars from the point of view of the objectives of the convergence seminars and their theoretical basis in the hypothetical retrospection. The purpose of having such a broad focus on the general development of NBT opening up for alternative future developments also had a positive consequence of avoiding a premature delimitation of whatever concerns the participants might have about the technology. In this way, rather than promoting a close investigation of one particular topic in the field, in effect we encouraged a wider exploration into the ethical and societal aspects of NBT. We found that the participants responded both by selecting the issues they felt were relevant for decision making of NBT and giving advice on those issues.
At the same time although we fulfilled the objective to grant the participants great latitude in discussing the ethical issues and possibilities within NBT development, the scenarios inevitably steered the participants’ attention to the content given within the scenarios. There is a correspondence between the participants’ comments and the narratives of the scenarios. Of course, the possibility of such an effect cannot be avoided in participatory procedures that involve the public in discussions about issues that they have little prior knowledge about. The issues to be discussed have to be introduced in some way, and any such introduction will have effects on the participants’ choice of topics. Furthermore, the nature of the scenarios and they way that they were presented to the participants may have mitigated such effects. The scenarios consisted of descriptive rather than evaluative accounts of possible NBT developments and applications. More importantly, the three divergent scenarios differed in their emphasis of topics, and thus did not impose a unified agenda on the participants.
As mentioned earlier, we tried to ensure that although participants were asked to discuss different possible effects of NBT, the ethical reasoning would not be confined to a consequentialist agenda, particularly since we wanted to allow for the concerns about rights and responsibilities that different actors may have. The scenarios were thus constructed in a way that disclosed the process leading up to the given scenario. Another means for ensuring considerations of process was the structuring of the seminars in different phases. This encouraged the participants to imagine what kind of decisions might have led up to their particular scenario. We also found that procedural aspects were far from neglected in the actual discussions, as is evident from the results which emphasise procedural guidelines for decision-making, regulation, public engagement etc. For instance the discussions concerned not only the potential harms and benefits of regulation, but also how the regulatory body should be constituted (which actors of society should be included) and whether the regulation should be set at national or international levels.
The participants’ responses to the methodology, as stated in the final questionnaire, were highly positive. A vast majority of the participants indicated that taking alternative developments into account had influenced their opinion of NBT. After completing phase two many claimed to have become aware of new aspects of NBT and its interplay with society, thereby becoming more positive, negative, or balanced in their over-all view. The responses in the questionnaire also indicate another positive outcome of the different phases of discussion; namely that the participants felt that their decision capacity had been improved by repeatedly taking into account the perspectives of other participants. Some of the scientists participating in the seminar in Lublin expressed that they found this aspect particularly rewarding as they were given a direct account of the values and priorities of non-scientists.
Taking into account both our own impressions of the contents of the discussion and the participants’ responses, we conclude that the methodology not only gives some idea of the public views on NBT but also can serve as a support for policy-making on NBT. The limited number of participants and restricted time devoted at each seminar did of course limit the depth and variety of opinions given on the future societal and ethical issues. Additional convergence seminars—in combination with other forms of public participation—would in all probability serve to facilitate and improve public decision-making on NBT.
In spite of the wide differences among the participants in geographic, demographic and professional terms, some views were widely expressed and supported at all four of the convergence seminars. It was agreed that the research priorities in NBT should be those which meet crucial societal needs. Many participants for instance claimed that socially useful applications that would target global environmental problems and benefit human health should be prioritised over novel consumer products and military applications. Similarly at all seminars it was argued that research should generate applications that truly benefit the developing world, thereby contributing to decreasing rather than increasing the gap between countries. Further public participation on social and ethical issues of NBT was unanimously encouraged. A broader public influence over the technological development was supported in its own right, but it was also advocated as a necessary step in avoiding (additional) public alienation or backlashes, and in enabling NBT to be beneficial to different members of society.
Views were more divided on how much regulation is needed to curb unwanted developments. Some participants believed that a strong regulatory scheme is necessary as it deters unwanted applications. Others argued that regulation (and bureaucracy) is important since it at least creates some inertia in the development, thereby allowing for more insight into long-term impacts and side effects. In contrast some said that over-regulation and excessive precaution were a problem because it implied a loss of potential benefits and would generate (economic) unbalances if certain countries went ahead with less regulation. A common feature in all responses was a recommendation to make the regulatory bodies robust and to strive for as much international agreement as possible to meet the demands of novel technologies.
As the participants faced an emerging and uncertain technology such as NBT it was evident that a major consideration was the existing level of trust they had in the institutions, industry and policy-makers. Participants made comparisons with recent experiences with other technological and commercial developments where they felt that the objectives to create a cheap and accessible technology had not been realised. Another finding was that many important ethical issues are not necessarily ones that arise in the mid- to long-term stages of the NBT development. The discussions in fact showed that the participants’ chief concerns lay rather in the earlier stages of the development, for instance in deciding on research priorities and regulation.
Due to the limited scope of this study, the participants’ viewpoints should obviously not be interpreted as representative of the general public in the respective regions. What we have done is to collect qualitative data of attitudes and viewpoints in different sectors of the European population, attempting to cover some of its geographic and social divergence. The large degree of agreement that we found between the participants in the four different seminars give an indication that these views are widespread, but does of course not exclude that other views may also be widespread. Additional studies are needed to obtain a more complete picture of opinions on NBT in the European population.
This was the first use of convergence seminars. The method functioned well, both logistically and more importantly, by giving rise to the type of discussions that we aimed for, namely discussions on how today’s decisions should be influenced by different possible future developments. As expected, the methodology was well suited for discussions on the future of NBT, with its many uncertainties. The responses the participants gave in discussions and questionnaires indicated that their advice, on what decisions should be made about the NBT development, was influenced both by different possible future developments and by the points of view of their co-participants.
NanoBioRAISE homepage: http://nanobio-raise.org/
Some of the most recent projects include the Nanodialogue (an Italian EC-project), Nanodialogues (from DEMOS), Nanologue (EU, 2005-06); Nanojury (UK, 2005); Global Dialogue on Nanotechnology and the Poor, GDNP, (U.S., 2004-05); Citizens’ Attitudes Towards Nanotechnology Survey (Denmark, 2005); Melbourne Citizens’ Panel on Nanotechnologies, (Australia, 2004); Deepening Ethical Engagement and Participation in Emerging Nanotechnologies, DEEPEN, (EU, 2006-09). For a recent valuable publication that summarises public engagement initiatives on nanotechnology see .
This work was performed within NanoBio-RAISE, a 6th Framework Programme Science & Society Co-ordination Action funded by the European Commission. We gratefully acknowledge the support. We also wish to thank all the participants in the convergence seminars and all who helped in various ways to arrange them: Dr. David Bennett, Dr. Henrik Carlsen, Nicola Godman, Erik Göransson, Dr. Radoslaw Janicki, Dr. Mikael Karlsson, Daan Schuurbiers, Susanne Sleenhoff, Guy Thompson, and Dr. Misse Wester Herber. A special thank you to the key organisors of the fours seminars: Dr. Mike Adcock, Dr. Karin Bengtsson, AnnCatrin Hjernquist, Dr. Anna Olsson, Ana Paula Pêgo, João Diogo Silva, and Professor Karol Izydor Wysokinski.
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