Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 15, Issue 1, pp 81–96 | Cite as

Avoiding Empty Rhetoric: Engaging Publics in Debates About Nanotechnologies

  • Renee KyleEmail author
  • Susan Dodds
Orginal Paper


Despite the amount of public investment in nanotechnology ventures in the developed world, research shows that there is little public awareness about nanotechnology, and public knowledge is very limited. This is concerning given that nanotechnology has been heralded as ‘revolutionising’ the way we live. In this paper, we articulate why public engagement in debates about nanotechnology is important, drawing on literature on public engagement and science policy debate and deliberation about public policy development. We also explore the significance of timing in engaging the public, and we make some suggestions concerning how to effectively engage publics. Our conclusions indicate the significance of scientific researchers, policy makers and representative consumer groupings in public reasoning towards a better public policy framework for debate about technological development.


Nanotechnology Public engagement Public policy Public trust Deliberative processes 


  1. 1.
    Prime Ministers’ Science, Engineering and Innovation Council. (2005). Nanotechnologies: Enabling technologies for Australian innovative industries. Available from Accessed 30 January 2008.
  2. 2.
    Lux Research Inc. (2007). The nanotech report (5th ed.). New York: Lux Research Inc.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Commonwealth Government of Australia. Invest Australia. (2005). Australian nanotechnology: Capability and commercial potential (2nd ed.). Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Available from
  4. 4.
    Dandolo Partners. (2005). Nanotechnologies: A national survey of consumers: Detailed Report. Report for Nanotechnologies Victoria. Available from Accessed 23 April, 2008.
  5. 5.
    Peter, D., & Hart Research Associates, Inc. (2007). Awareness of and attitude towards nanotechnologies and federal regulatory agencies: A report of findings based on a national survey of adults. Conducted on behalf of Project on Emerging Technologies, The Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. Available from Accessed 15 January 2008.
  6. 6.
    BMRB Social Research. (2008). Nanotechnology: Views of the general public. Prepared for the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering Nanotechnology Working Group. Available from Accessed 23 April 2008.
  7. 7.
    Market Attitude Research Services. (2007). Australian community attitudes held about nanotechnology—trends 2005 to 2007 final report. Conducted on behalf of the Australian Commonwealth Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. Available from
  8. 8.
    Jasanoff, S. (2004). Science and citizenship: A new synergy. Science & Public Policy, 31, 90–94. doi: 10.3152/147154304781780064.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Irwin, A. (1995). Citizen science: A study of people, expertise and sustainable development. New York, NY, USA: Routledge.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Young, I. M. (2000). Inclusion and democracy. New York, NY, USA: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Ankeny, R. A., & Dodds, S. (2008). Hearing community voices: Public engagement in Australian human embryo research policy, 2005–2007. New Genetics and Society, 27(3) (forthcoming, Sept 2008).Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Irwin, A., & Wynne, B. (Eds.). (1996). Misunderstanding science?: The public reconstruction of science and technology. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    McDowell, A. (2002). Trust and information: The role of trust in the social epistemology of information science. Social Epistemology, 16(1), 51–63. doi: 10.1080/210132798.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Jones, K. (1996). Trust as an affective attitude. Ethics, 107, 4–25. doi: 10.1086/233694.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Burchell, J., & Cook, J. (2006). It’s good to talk? Examining attitudes towards corporate social responsibility dialogue and engagement processes. Business Ethics (Oxford, England), 15(2), 154–170. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8608.2006.00439.x.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Ludlow, K., Bowman, D., & Hodge, G. (2008). A review of possible impacts of nanotechnology on Australia’s regulatory frameworks. Melbourne: Monash University Law. Available from:
  17. 17.
    Irwin, A. (2006). The politics of talk: Coming to terms with the ‘new’ scientific governance. Social Studies of Science, 36, 299–320. doi: 10.1177/0306312706053350.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Ivison, D. (2002). Postcolonial liberalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Elster, J. (1998). Introduction. In J. Elster (Ed.), Deliberative democracy (pp. 1–18). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Dodds, S., & Ankeny, R. A. (2006). Regulation of hESC Research in Australia: Promises and pitfalls for deliberative democratic approaches. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, 3(1–2), 95–107. doi: 10.1007/s11673-006-9007-4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. (2004). Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: Opportunities and uncertainties. London: The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Wilsdon, J., & Willis, R. (2005). See-through science: Why public engagement needs to move upstream. London: Demos.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    National Nanotechnology Strategy Taskforce. (2006). Options for a national nanotechnology strategy. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Kearnes, M., Grove-White, R., Macnaghten, P., Wilsdon, J., & Wynne, B. (2006). From bio to nano: Learning lessons from the UK agricultural biotechnology controversy. Science as Culture, 15(4), 291–307. doi: 10.1080/09505430601022619.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Commonwealth Government of Australia. (2007). Australian national nanotechnology strategy. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Available from:
  26. 26.
    Sandler, R., & Kay, W. D. (2006). The GMO-nanotech (dis)analogy? Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 26(1), 57–62. doi: 10.1177/0270467605284348.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Ebbesen, M., Andersen, S., & Besenbacher, F. (2006). Ethics in nanotechnology: Starting from scratch? Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 26(6), 451–462. doi: 10.1177/0270467606295003.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Scheufele, D. A. (2008, February). Engaging religious audiences on nanotechnology. In Presented to the annual convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Boston, MA.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Kahan, D. M., Slovic, P., Braman, D., Gastil, J., Cohen, G., & Kysar, D. (2008). Biased assimilation, polarization, and cultural credibility: An experimental study of nanotechnology risk perceptions: Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Research Brief No. 3. Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Macnaghten, P. (2004). Animals in their nature: A case study on public attitudes to animals, genetic modification and ‘nature’. Sociology, 38(3), 533–551. doi: 10.1177/0038038504043217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 31.
    Cranor, C. F. (2003). How should society approach the real and potential risks posed by new technologies? Plant Physiology, 133, 3–9. doi: 10.1104/pp.103.026435.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Preston, C. J. (2005). The promise and threat of nanotechnologies. HYLE–International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, 11(1), 19–44.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Friends of the Earth Australia. (2006). An analysis by friends of the earth of the national nanotechnologies strategy taskforce report: “Options for a national nanotechnologies strategy”. Friends of the Earth Australia Nanotechnologies Project. Available from Accessed 28 November, 2007.
  34. 34.
    Clarke, S. (2005). Future technologies, dystopic futures and the precautionary principle. Ethics and Information Technology, 7, 121–126. doi: 10.1007/s10676-006-0007-1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 35.
    Gavelin, K., Wilson, R., & Doubleday, R. (2007). Democratic technologies? The final report of the Nanotechnologies Engagement Group (NEG). London, UK: Involve. Available from Accessed 3 February, 2007.
  36. 36.
    Macnaghten, P., Kearnes, M., & Wynne, B. (2005). Nanotechnology, governance and public deliberation: What role for the social sciences? Science Communication, 27(2), 268–287. doi: 10.1177/1075547005281531.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 37.
    European Commission. (2007). Taking European knowledge society seriously. Report of the expert group on science and governance to the science, economy and society directorate (Directorate-General for Research, European Commission). Available from:
  38. 38.
    Fisher, E., Mahajan, R. L., & Mitcham, C. (2006). Midstream modulation of technology: Governance from within. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 26(6), 485–496. doi: 10.1177/0270467606295402.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 39.
    Rogers-Hayden, T., & Pidgeon, N. (2007). Moving engagement ‘upstream’? Nanotechnologies and the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering’s inquiry. Public Understanding of Science, 16, 345–364.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Siegrist, M., Keller, C., Kastenholz, H., Frey, S., & Wiek, A. (2007). Laypeople’s and experts’ perception of nanotechnologies hazards. Risk Analysis, 27(1), 59–69. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2006.00859.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    Bruce, D. (2007). Engaging citizens on nanobiotechnology using the DEMOCS game: Interim report on DEMOCS games on nanobiotechnology played in the UK and The Netherlands 2007. Edinburgh: DEMOCS. Available from:
  42. 42.
    European Commission. (2006). Europeans and biotechnology in 2005: Patterns and trends. Eurobarometer 64.3. London: European Commission. Available from:
  43. 43.
    Siegrist, M., Cousin, M., Kastenholz, H., & Wiek, A. (2007). Public acceptance of nanotechnology foods and food packaging: The influence of affect and trust. Appetite, 49, 459–466. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2007.03.002.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. 44.
    Friends of Earth Australia. Friends of the Earth Europe and Friends of the Earth USA. (2008). Out of the laboratory and onto our plates: Nanotechnology in food and agriculture. Melbourne: Friends of the Earth Australia. Available from:
  45. 45.
    Bowman, D., & Hodge, G. (2007). Nanotechnologies and public interest dialogue: Some international observations. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 27(2), 118–132. doi: 10.1177/0270467606298216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. 46.
    Moor, J., & Weckert, J. (2004). Nanoethics: Assessing the nanoscale from an ethical point of view. In D. Baird, A. Nordmann, & J. Schummer (Eds.), Discovering the nanoscale (pp. 301–310). Amsterdam: IOS Press.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Guston, D. H., & Sarewitz, D. (2002). Real-time technology assessment. Technology in Society, 23(4), 93–109.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Gordjin, B. (2003). Nanoethics: From utopian dreams and apocalyptic nightmares towards a more balanced view. Paris, France: UNESCO. Available from Accessed 21 January, 2008.
  49. 49.
    International Association for Public Participation. (2007). IAP2 public participation spectrum 2007. International Association for Public Participation. Available from Accessed 13 February, 2008.
  50. 50.
    Katz, E., Lovel, R., Mee, W., & Solomon, F. (2005). Citizen’s panel on nanotechnology report to participants. Canberra: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Available from:
  51. 51.
    Market Attitude Research Services. (2008). Australian community attitudes held about nanotechnology—trends 2005 to 2008 presentation report. Conducted on behalf of the Australian Commonwealth Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. Available from
  52. 52.
    Friends of the Earth Australia. (August 2008). Australia’s first nano ‘dialogue’ shuts out critics, is industry biased. Friends of the Earth Australia Nanotechnology Project. Available from

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials ScienceUniversity of WollongongGwynnevilleAustralia
  2. 2.School of English Literatures, Philosophy and LanguagesUniversity of WollongongGwynnevilleAustralia

Personalised recommendations