From October 2009 to February 2010, the French government attempted an experiment. Arguing that public input was needed to help shape the direction of nanotechnology in the country, the National Commission for Public Debate (CNDP) decided to organize a series of 17 local public discussions around the country, from Strasbourg to Orleans.
The program started reasonably calmly, but as the fall turned to winter environmental and civil society organizations increasingly raised their discontent with the program by sending protesters to the events. When the debates reached Marseilles, the protest was so overwhelming that some of the debates were cancelled.
It is a bit ironic that organizations seeking a voice in the direction of nanotechnology would boycott a program with the stated intent of giving the public a voice in the direction of nanotechnology. But the protesters didn’t see it that way. They believed that all of the important decisions about nanotechnology had already been made and the public debates were simply window dressing designed so that there could be a public rubber stamp on the importance and direction of nanotechnology for the French people. In their protests, they held signs that said “Nano, it’s not green, it’s totalitarian.”
Needless to say, the series of events troubled the French government. With all of the discussions about nanotechnology and its social and environmental impacts, there had not been a visible outcry against nano anywhere in the world. The protests reminded many of the social movements against GMOs a series of events that few public officials or scientists want to repeat.
In an effort to figure out what happened and plan for the future, Institut des Hautes Études pour la Science et la Technologie (IHEST) is holding a Summer School in the eastern mountains of France. The summer school, entitled Which place for science in the public debate?, brings together about fifty scholars and public officials with the express goal of developing new ways to foster better relationships between science and the public.
A number of CSPO and CSPO affiliate faculty have been invited including Dan Sarewitz, Mark Brown, Arie Rip, and myself. Over the next few days Mark Brown and I will be blogging on this site to give you our real time reflections and (hopefully) insights into how these discussions proceed.
About the Author: Jameson Wetmore is an assistant professor with CSPO and CNS-ASU, and ASU’s School of Human Evolution & Social Change.