Evolving scientific research governance in Australia: a case study of engaging interested publics in nanotechnology research

This article starts by introducing nanotechnology in Australia and how the public has been involved in the discussion of science and technology. The different aspects and options for integrating science and nanotechnology to a social context and development governance are part of the key focus in this article.

It is argued that the role of public discussion in scientific research is a radical concept particularly for the organisations and scientists involved in the decision making and daily schedule planning processes. Research governance has been evolving in order to cater to the growing public demand for greater accountability, an approach that detracts from the traditional scientific approaches as it seeks to detach science from values. This has become a critical challenge to these traditional scientific approaches because of the years of research into the depths of the social dimensions of science and technology.

CSIRO, a national research organisation that concentrates on natural, physical and information science research is facing an acute governance decision on how to prioritise its research objectives and determining the roles of the layman interested in such nanotechnology research. These roles are currently missing. The lack of public support for nanotechnologies in general has created a void for a new aspect of social science involvement.

Nanotechnology research organisations have encountered a dilemma in their study of new methods in integration society and public involvement in the development process. This dilemma is two-fold; on one front, such organisations face the dilemma of prediction and on the other side, the dilemma of control. One must first understand that nanotechnology research in still in its infancy and thus one cannot easily predict the consequences of such emerging technologies. Long term research or studies are also non-existent and research is still an ongoing process. Thus there is the dilemma of prediction. The other dilemma of control refers to the state in which organisations are so actively engaged in the research of such emerging technologies that it becomes extremely challenging to rectify and at a great expense.

Ongoing research on public engagement has determined how members of the public evaluate nanotechnology and also the skills required to identify the range of social values and criteria that a participant may use in their assessments. Certain issues must be highlighted as they command a high priority. Such issues include: accountability and transparency in nanotechnology research and development, the health and safety of those working in the production of nanoparticles, the health of the natural environment etc.

A further study was conducted on the options and possibilities of integrating social issues and public concerns into scientific research. This study determined that:

  • Technical Design
    Identifying points in the research and development process where different design choices are possible.
  • Research portfolio
    Research into social and ethical considerations, alongside the technical research, to help identify key issues and where positive impacts could be achieved.
  • Social engagement
    Improving research decision-making and practice about nanotechnologies by engaging with a range of perspectives from lay and expert knowledges and through informed public debate.
  • Developing a scientific culture
    Fostering a climate for the scientists in which social and ethical considerations are seen as legitimate and important, and where scientists are rewarded for including such considerations in their work.

In conclusion, there is ongoing exploration on the possibilities of integrating public engagement in nanotechnology governance. Research is moving at a very fast pace and there are a number of complex issues to be tackled before any decision is determined to ensure a smooth integration process. There is also the need to recognise the limitations of public involvement.

Katz, E., Solomon, F., Mee, W., Lovel, R. (2009) Evolving scientific research governance in Australia: a case study of engaging interested publics in nanotechnology research. Public Understanding of Science, 18 (5), 531-545.

-fireprism

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