Modeled on a deliberative process pioneered in Denmark in the 1980s, Madison's first consensus conference aimed to allow area citizens to consider the promises and perils of nanotechnologies before they reach the market. . . There are two premises of the consensus conference approach. First, in democracy, we assume that citizens are entitled to a say in all matters that affect their lives. Science and technology often are treated as an exception to this value. . . Second, consensus conferences are based on the belief that lay people are able to understand complicated technical matters and sometimes can offer insights that experts do not consider.
CRN endorses both premises above. In fact, it's hard to imagine a legitimate argument against them.
North Carolina State University researchers conducted a survey last year designed to gauge U.S. public perceptions about nanotechnology. As we stated at the time, the results were encouraging. Public opinion about nanotech risks and preferred long-term goals seemed sensible and wise to us. Underestimating or, even worse, devaluing the ability of citizens to understand issues and offer useful insights is foolish and wrong.
On the other hand, it's equally wrong and foolish to rely solely on public opinion. Experts should be listened to. The idea that "science is too important to be left to scientists" is one we have challenged before. Especially in a field such as molecular manufacturing, a deep understanding of the relevant science is indispensable.
CRN believes that when science raises profound ethical and social issues, the whole of society needs to take part in the debate. That includes lay people, specialists, and elected representatives.
In Madison, the citizen group drafted a series of recommendations [PDF] covering health and safety regulations, research and research funding, media coverage and information availability, and public involvement. In those areas, their ideas are mostly just common sense. Only a few might generate opposition.
However, they did not avoid controversy altogether. Three specific recommendations are worth addressing here:
We recommend that nanotechnology not be used to generate weaponry.
As appealing as that sounds, it seems highly unlikely to be followed. Far more probable is an arms race involving nano-built weaponry. Our analysis suggests this would be an unstable situation that easily could result in devastating war.
CRN shares the hope that such weapons never will be developed, but we think a more feasible approach is to seek an international treaty governing production and use of nanotech weapons. The sticky part, of course, is enforcement. How to accomplish that is still an open question, but well worth trying to answer -- because the alternative is simply too terrible to contemplate.
We recommend that regulatory agencies not use nanotechnologies to invade citizens' privacy.
Again, this sounds like a nice idea. Maybe by raising the issue now, before the capabilities are developed, citizen groups can generate so much public opposition that the authorities won't dare defy them. Maybe...but it's doubtful. A more realistic solution might be non-governmental, open-source labs, supported by grassroots contributions and private foundations, to develop nano-built surveillance capabilities to "watch the watchers."
We recommend the formation of an international agency that would consider nanotechnology issues.
This has a familiar ring to it. We've been calling for something similar for more than two years. It's good to hear others doing the same.
Our only complaint about the report from the consensus conference in Madison, Wisconsin, is that they focused mainly on short-term issues such as nanoparticle safety. By limiting their scope to today's nanoscale technologies, the group failed to address numerous larger issues raised by molecular manufacturing.
Nanotech arms races, economic disruption, environmental destabilization, widening gaps between rich and poor, an unprecedented concentration of power -- these and more challenges await us in the near future. Citizens groups can and must take on these problems, with urgency.