Who's In Control?

The public must play a significant role in any decisions made about the development of the new technology. By Tom Wakeford

When asked whether the UN’s sanctions regime was worth the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children, Madeleine Albright, then the US ambassador to the UN, replied: ‘Yes, I think it is worth it.’ When questioned about the paltry compensation paid to victims of the Bhopal chemical disaster, Dow Chemical’s former CEO Michael Parker replied: ‘$500 is plenty good for an Indian’. For those at the top (the few who benefit) the price probably is worth paying. But what of the millions of Iraqis whose families have been torn apart, or the 200,000 now chronically ill survivors of Bhopal, or the thousands of Ukrainian farmers still unable to plough their radiation-scarred land 18 years after Chernobyl. Do they think the price of oil, or pesticides or nuclear power is worth paying? Were they even asked?

Of course not. No one ever is. We only ever get to decide whether technologies are worth it once we have realised they are not. Think DDT or thalidomide or CFCs. All only removed once the damage was done. The same is happening with the development of nanotechnology; except the consequences of it’s going wrong will make a few thousand mutilated babies or a gap in the ozone layer look like a nanodrop in the ocean.

Engineering Consent

The introduction of new technology goes something like this. First the technology is developed behind closed doors. Then the public is excited and won over with breathless pronouncements of wondrous advances and life-improving panaceas. After this, and only afterwards, regulatory regimes are set up and adapted to fit an already packaged product. Given the investments made in developing the technology, it is impossible to re-design it – even when potentially deleterious social or ecological effects have been identified. Already, nanotechnology has reached stage two: L’oréal adverts promise consumers more youthful skin thanks to new ‘nanosomes’; they neglect to mention the possibility that nanoparticles could enter our bloodstream or vital organs.

The push for GM crops was a classic example of this three-stage process in action. Throughout the 1990s massive investments were made in optimising herbicide- and insect-resistant GM crop varieties before any realistic analyses had been made of whether they would benefit farmers or the land. By the mid-1990s, attempts to ensure consumer acceptance were made via a subsidised GM tomato puree that came out cheaper than its non-GM equivalent; the plan was to get us all used to the idea that GM could be part of our daily diet. Finally, the corporations developing GM pushed for – and in many countries secured – favourable regulatory regimes that would ensure farmers and consumers took most of the risks while multinationals made most of the profits.

By the time the public had any say on GM, the genie was already out of the bottle. The result? Protests and crop-pulling once the seeds had already been sown, rather than a reasoned discussion about the direction people wished a future technology to take. The recent leaks revealing that the government has already decided to approve the commercial growth of GM crops prove that its public debate on the issue currently taking place in the UK is nothing but a PR exercise.

In contrast to this use of public participation as a rubber-stamping procedure for decisions that have already been made, a number of recent British and Indian projects have taken an entirely different approach. These projects illustrate how specialists and non-specialists could work together to determine mutually acceptable goals for the research and development of new technologies.

Citizen Foresight

Following an open brainstorming session, Citizen Foresight (a research tool set up by scientists at the universities of East London and Sussex) asked members of the UK public to list a series of options for the future of food and farming. Instead of being given a remit to focus on particular technologies like GM crops, the 12 panel members were allowed to set the agenda for the debate. They decided what the criteria would be by which the desirability of different options could be judged. They were also allowed to ask for extra witnesses to address issues not anticipated by the oversight panel. Among the unanimous results was a proposal for a complete re-structuring of the UK farming system to promote cheaper, locally produced organic food. GM foods were viewed as unnecessary and not worth the risks to public health.

GM rejected in India

Similarly, the ‘Prajateerpu’ process in India used a scenario workshop model to enable a jury of marginal farmers from Andhra Pradesh to choose between three contrasting ‘visions’ for the future of food and farming in their region. The options were illustrated by short documentary-style videos, which were followed by statements from ‘witnesses’ in support of each vision. While the information provided was clearly framed by the organisers, the jury was able to make an independent decision after extensive deliberations. Consequently, the small or landless farmers were able to critique the whole system of money-lending and coercion that led them into chemically-based agriculture and debt. Their rejection of GM was an inevitable consequence of their preference for a self-reliant agricultural system over one controlled by foreign multinationals.

Regulating God

Jim Watson was one of the original pair of scientists credited with ‘discovering’ the structure of DNA 50 years ago. When asked whether scientists were really the best people to regulate projects with huge social and ethical implications, he recently said: ‘If scientists don’t play God, who will?’ Yet at the Royal Society’s People’s Science Summit in March Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse (the director of the RS’s Science in Society committee) suggested that genetic technologies ought to be subject to democratic regulation. Nurse said that the opinions of non-scientists could be vital in stopping worrying developments such as DNA birth certificates.

A single dramatic lesson arises from almost every process that involves ordinary people, rather than just scientists, in setting agendas. It is that democratic deliberations tend to move attention away from providing quick technological ‘fixes’ for problems towards the practical delivery of social justice with existing technologies.

As the independent Genetic Futures Jury (GFJ) points out, it is not that lay people are ‘anti-science’ but that they see new technologies as diverting attention and resources away from solving problems best tackled with existing technologies. The GFJ was set up (by scientists) to promote the involvement of citizens in science. It was asked how we should respond to the geneticisation of society and nature. By the time they reached their verdict, the exclusively lay members of the jury had become holistic experts in the analysis of the future of genetics. They might not have had all the specialist knowledge of scientists, but they were able to synthesise it in a way that compared well with the practices of parliamentarians. What we need in the new nanotech age is an acceleration of such democratic initiatives, with the active involvement of scientists and decision-makers. This should be done at a global, as well as local, level.

If such an approach were adopted, scientists in 50 years time might view Watson’s ‘playing-God’ remark the same way that we now view Thatcher’s ‘no-such-thing-as-society’ comment. Only when we have developed proper mechanisms for bringing science under genuine democratic control will we be able to start a rational discussion about what role, if any, nanotech should play in our future.

Tom Wakeford leads the DIY citizens’ jury project at the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Institute at the University of Newcastle.


Controlling Nanotech

An open public debate is the first imperative, followed by:

1. A moratorium

‘In the absence of any kind of laboratory protocol for handling nanotech materials, the only sensible course of action is to call for a total moratorium’
- Pat Mooney, executive director of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration

2. A global nano-safety protocol

Following the example of existing conventions for controlling potentially harmful materials, a nano-safety protocol based on the precautionary principle should govern safe handling, transfer, use and development of nanoparticles, nano materials, nano devices and nano-biotechnology.

3. An international convention for evaluation of new technologies

A UN body should be empowered to assess new and emerging technologies from a societal perspective, considering threats to democracy, livelihoods, culture and the environment.

4. Labelling

Given that nanoparticles are being used without any consumer knowledge, consumers should be able to avoid these novel particles if they so choose. Learning from the experience of GMOs, nanoparticle producers must also make available the means to identify and track their products should they need to be recalled.

5. Liability

Who will be held responsible if a commercially released nanoparticle turns out to be damaging to health, the environment or traditional livelihoods and culture? A strict regulatory system needs to be established now.

6. No patents on matter

The possibility of nano-patents means that the molecules and elements that make up the universe could one day come under legal monopolistic control. Clear rules need to be established to nullify any such nano-patents.

7. Arms control

Jurgen Altmann of the University of Dortmund in Germany and Mark Gubrud of the University of Maryland in the US have proposed that bioweapons and conventional arms agreements need to be strengthened to consider nanotech weaponry.

8. Clean production criteria

Does nanotechnology have any place in clean production systems? And will organic standards prohibit atomic modification as they have already prohibited genetic modification.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2003


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