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Negotiating Plausibility: Intervening in the Future of Nanotechnology


The national-level scenarios project NanoFutures focuses on the social, political, economic, and ethical implications of nanotechnology, and is initiated by the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (CNS-ASU). The project involves novel methods for the development of plausible visions of nanotechnology-enabled futures, elucidates public preferences for various alternatives, and, using such preferences, helps refine future visions for research and outreach. In doing so, the NanoFutures project aims to address a central question: how to deliberate the social implications of an emergent technology whose outcomes are not known. The solution pursued by the NanoFutures project is twofold. First, NanoFutures limits speculation about the technology to plausible visions. This ambition introduces a host of concerns about the limits of prediction, the nature of plausibility, and how to establish plausibility. Second, it subjects these visions to democratic assessment by a range of stakeholders, thus raising methodological questions as to who are relevant stakeholders and how to activate different communities so as to engage the far future. This article makes the dilemmas posed by decisions about such methodological issues transparent and therefore articulates the role of plausibility in anticipatory governance.

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  1. However, getting scientists and engineers to agree to participate in the vetting process was not easy. The first attempt involved a mass mailing to ASU scientists with relevant expertise. After several attempts, including hand delivering the scenes, my colleagues and I decided to try the focus group approach, which resulted in one vetting session. The subsequent vetting workshops were painstakingly arranged, and mostly involved scientists who knew CNS-ASU or who had direct experience working with science policy and thus readily understood that the Center’s objective is to cultivate broader engagement around the future of nanotechnology. In the end, personal contacts mattered a great deal in recruiting faculty participants to the vetting workshops.

  2. The National Citizens Technology Forum is a nation-wide extensive and intensive form of public deliberation conducted by CNS-ASU. In March of 2008, CNS-ASU recruited a panel of citizens, provided them with detailed background information about nanotechnology and access to nanotechnology experts, and allowed them to develop a set of recommendations for decision makers, all with the support of the research team and a professional facilitator (see also Guston 2011, this issue).

  3. Note that we do not consider the ASU alumni or the participants of the National Citizens Technology Forum to be representative of the public at large, but rather of a sample that may have different stakes in nanotechnology than scientists, policy makers, or those advocating for nanotechnology.

  4. The Foresight Institute is “a leading think tank and public interest organization focused on transformative future technologies. Founded in 1986, its mission is to discover and promote the upsides, and help avoid the dangers, of nanotechnology, AI, biotech, and similar life-changing developments” (see

  5. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) is a non-profit research and advocacy think tank concerned with the major societal and environmental implications of advanced nanotechnology (see

  6. An obvious limitation of this sample is that it excludes individuals without internet access.


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The author thanks Daniel Sarewitz, David Guston, Erik Fisher, Sarah Davies and the group at CNS-ASU for their help in both the practical execution of the project and the articulation of the theories and methods behind it.

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Correspondence to Cynthia Selin.

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Selin, C. Negotiating Plausibility: Intervening in the Future of Nanotechnology. Sci Eng Ethics 17, 723–737 (2011).

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  • Plausibility
  • Deliberation
  • Social implications of nanotechnology
  • Foresight