Brussels, 29 Jan 2004
The UK working group charged with carrying out a study on the likely developments in nanotechnology has heard calls for the creation of a 'space' where scientists, government representatives, civil society groups and industry can communicate as needed.
Representatives from civil society groups attended a meeting with the working group, and agreed that now is the optimum time to instigate such a process. This is mainly due to an increasing desire among scientists to interact with society, and, as a result of debates on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), recognition within businesses of the importance of engagement.
It was felt by some civil society groups that increased communication between all stakeholders would avoid a situation in which civil society groups are forced into taking an extreme view, which some felt was the case during the discussions on GM due to polarisation and a lack of debate.
Participants in the meeting also identified as important a mechanism to bring together a range of citizens, including those who could be marginalized by new technologies, with scientists and regulators, so that new step changes in science can be identified. It is also important, participants suggested, to encourage industry to talk openly about its work and potential developments.
The working group heard that technology should not be imposed on the public, and nor should it be seen to be being imposed. This is likely to lead to a rejection of the technology, even if the perception is not accurate. Instead, technological progress should be slowed in order to keep pace with citizens' deliberations and decision making, some civil society groups claimed.
Specific potential developments were highlighted as areas for discussion with society, including the likely impacts on existing technology, such as pharmaceuticals; the impact on poverty; intellectual property issues; the potential distribution of power; societal expectations, regarding, for example, the eradication of disabilities; toxicity; military uses; and 'grey goo' - the image of self-replicating nano-robots popularised by some sections of the media and science fiction.
The meeting with civil society representatives was part of an ongoing study commissioned by the UK government in June 2003. The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering are conducting the research, assessing the likely developments in nanotechnology and whether the technology is likely to raise any new health and safety issues.
Evidence collected during the meeting with civil society groups has recently been made public, and the working group is now inviting feedback.
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