Ethical Corporation Article
Summary of our report - on what does the public want to know about nanotechnologies

This was first published as an article in Ethical Corporation online

Learning communications lessons from GM and other techno-disasters

In Australia there appears to be a growing backlash from scientists and farmers against a recent Greenpeace campaign trashing GM crops. They have been accused of jeapordising lives by interrupting valuable research into disease resistant plants. In the same week Mark Lynas’ controversial but widely admired book ‘The God Species’ was published, which explores the 9 Planetary Boundaries and concludes that GM is an essential part of the mix to help us feed the planet sustainably. In fact the scientists I speak to have always felt the ban on GM was a nonsensical and self-defeating strategy.  Has it’s time come again in Europe? If so, how do we do it right this time and what lessons can we learn from that introduction for other technologies?

We’ve been looking at this issue in more depth in relation to nanotechnology and synthetic biology.  Our initial focus was governance issues, through the multi-stakeholder development of the Responsible Nano Code, a principles based code to help companies develop and market nano-enabled products responsibly.  We then began to explore the issues of transparency and communication - a key component of the Code - through our project Walking with Stakeholders, the first part of which was published this week.  

Communication lies at the heart of both the problem and the opportunity of new technologies.  If businesses and governments communicated better about their vision for the role of these new technologies; if they thought through the social and environmental benefits and risks and explained that to us and if they showcased the systems and processes they have in place to oversee their development, then our research indicates we would all be much more willing to accept the use of even the spookiest technologies.  

Our starting point with this project was to try to understand what public really wants to know from companies to give them confidence in the products using these technologies, so. As we didn’t have the cash to ask them direct, we reviewed 23 publications, mainly government sponsored dialogues with the general public, where they were asked for their views on a variety of technologies, particularly nanotech, synthetic biology and stem cell research.

The fundamental starting point is that when new technologies are used, the public want companies to be open about it. They want to have a choice. This sounds like a no brainer, but, using nanotechnology as an example, though there are at least 350 nano enabled products available in Europe, our trawl of company websites showed there is virtually nothing available on where and how they are currently being used.

There is a great deal of nervousness among companies, who are confident of their use of nanotech, for example in sunscreens, but worry that the ‘n word’ will strike fear into the hearts of customers unnecessarily and so keep quiet.  But these dialogues indicate very positive reactions, even involving the most futuristic of technologies, if the benefit is clear and easy to understand and meaningful information is available, preferably from a variety of sources.  

People were worried about why the technology was being used - were scientists doing it just to see if they could; or companies simply finding clever new ways to relieve them of their cash?  They wanted a much richer picture about the benefits - not just that it would give them fewer wrinkles or kill some more germs, but to know what problem was being solved, how it improves on existing solutions and that social or environmental issues have been considered and acted upon.  This doesn’t mean that incremental improvements would not be acceptable, but they need to add real customer benefit and need explaining better.

There was more interest than we expected in whether the system of regulation and oversight was working and, though they knew they weren’t going to be that interested in reading about that themselves, a desire to know that strong independent organisations are available to keep an eye on that process.   They want to know that when things go wrong, (not if - they were realistic!), someone is responsible, and liable, and has thought about how will it be put right.  

“They aren’t interested in all that boring technical stuff” I hear you cry.  Yes, true -  if it is boring and technical. But whilst of course the behaviours and processes needed to reassure go far deeper than a simple comms strategy, there are many innovative ways of communicating and engaging with customers and the wider public which can reassure people that your use of new technologies is based on sound science and a real public benefit.

So the fundamental lesson of GM appears to be, make the use of the technology compelling in terms of benefit to human health or the environment, not just company profit, understand the risks and any wider social or ethical implications of its use and communicate and engage with stakeholders about these much much better.

Hilary Sutcliffe is Director of MATTER, a UK based think tank which seeks to make new technologies work for us all.

For more about this research, check out our Prezi presentation on Youtube 

MATTER Walking with Stakeholders on new technologies »MATTER Walking with Stakeholders on new technologies
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