Starting Off on the Wrong Foot

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By Federico Neresini

There are still relatively few empirical or theoretical studies on the public perception of nanotechnologies. Those that exist evince a recurrent concern which can be summed up as follows: the emerging sector of nanotechnologies must take care not to repeat the mistakes committed by biotechnologies.
Biotechnologies are cited here as a paradigmatic example because of their failure from the outset to take their ‘social impact’ seriously. They consequently created the conditions for research in the sector to slow down, or in some cases, indeed, to come entirely to a halt.

The expression ‘social impact’ usually refers – not necessarily jointly – to two aspects. On the one hand it serves to emphasise the potential risks to health, the environment, and society as a whole deriving from the development of biotechnological applications; on the other, it serves to emphasise the role of citizens – sometimes called ‘users’, or ‘consumers’, or simply ‘the public’ – in orienting the outcomes of technical-scientific innovation. Underestimation of these aspects (in particular the latter) by scientists, politicians, and business leaders has provoked mounting public hostility to biotechnology research and development, especially in the agro-food sector.
In the case of nanotechnologies, the moral therefore seems very simple: the lesson must be learnt, and opportune initiatives must be pursued from the outset. Yet it is not at all clear what lesson should be learnt, and therefore what initiatives would be ‘opportune’.
Even if simplifying an ongoing debate fuelled by a large body of analysis and research, two main interpretations have been put forward on the causes of the current situation in regard to biotechnologies.

First, many commentators maintain that the opposition to biotechnologies is due to the combined action of three factors: widespread ignorance about the subject, an increasingly entrenched anti-scientific culture, and disinformation by the media. On this view, the majority of people are hostile to GMOs and the relative research because they do not possess the scientific knowledge necessary to make competent judgements, and because they are conditioned by an irrational rejection of science, in its turn sustained by ignorance. Both attitudes, it is alleged, are fuelled by media which are either badly-informed or deliberately engaged in anti-scientific campaigns.
This interpretation is known as the ‘deficit model’: a lack of adequate information gives rise to judgements devoid of scientific foundation, and it generates irrational attitudes which prompt behaviour contrary to scientific good sense. If the problem is framed in these terms, the solution can only be that of undertaking initiatives to make up the deficit: for example, increasing and improving the popularization of science; giving greater importance to science on educational curricula; and multiplying occasions to enhance the prestige of scientific culture. A public sufficiently educated in science, the argument goes, will assuredly be a public in favour of it.
However, there are good reasons and sufficient empirical evidence to doubt the accuracy of this interpretation. First the argument according to which criticism or outright rejection of science depend on a lack of knowledge is somewhat weak, and indeed controversial, if subjected to careful scrutiny.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the fallaciousness of the ‘media-knowledge-attitudes’ causal chain and have suggested the opportunity to explore other possible interpretations, as, for example, that which the resistance to biotechnologies seems to derive considerably from the currently perceived absence of adequate and publicly accountable procedures for the governance of scientific and technological innovation. Consequently, more than increasing the commitment in communication as a one-way process, it instead seems necessary to invest in participation, reconfiguring communication between scientists and citizens as a dialogue between peers rather than as a strategy of top-down persuasion.
There are good reasons for arguing that, if we are to learn from the biotechnologies affair, we must not once again end up in the blind alley of the deficit model.
Abandoning the deficit model, to take full advantage of the lesson learnt from the biotechnologies affair, opens the field for other lines of inquiry, although the form that they should take is as yet unclear.

In the background to policy processes one discerns a certain consensus on the view that experimentation with new methods to involve the public in decision-making should be backed by analyses able to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Whilst we may take the need to invest in participation for granted, a great deal of research and reflection still remains to be done if we are to understand the true potential of the solutions adopted and subject them to further verification. There is no doubt, in fact, that the initiatives in deliberative democracy undertaken to tackle the issues raised by techno-scientific innovation have limitations, although they also hold out interesting prospects.
There is even greater space for research on developments in the public debate, not least to take advantage of the currently favourable situation. The fact that sizeable sections of the population are still today excluded from discussion on nanotechnologies – according to recent figures, at least 40% of the population of Europe and at least 52% of that of the United States – means that the public debate has not yet begun, even though media coverage is constantly increasing.

What is certain, however, is that this large number of people at present excluded from the debate on nanotechnologies and devoid of information will rapidly form an opinion when they must take up a position on the matter. And, as documented by numerous studies on social representations, they will do so by relying on previously-acquired metaphors, images and cognitive schemas.
In this sense, the biotechnologies affair is not only an emblematic case from which researchers and policy-makers can learn lessons, but also an important precedent on which people can draw to adopt interpretations and criteria already employed in the past. It for this reason, too, together with those outlined above, that study of the public perception of nanotechnologies may benefit greatly from analysis of the interpretative apparatuses that will presumably be used when the public debate on nanotechnologies begins.

An extended version of this artiche has been previously published in NANOTECHNOLOGY PERCEPTIONS, 2, 189-195 (2006) .