Tuesday, September 30, 2003

U.K. recognizes importance of perception

Scientists and engineers are talking today with members of the British nanotechnology working group, according to today's progress report. The experts are helping to "define what is meant by nanoscience and nanotechnology" (an argument that could take up the whole day in itself and likely never be resolved), identify specific applications and, probably of most interest to the general public, "start to consider where there might be health, safety and environmental impacts of the technology." The group will also host an Oct. 30 workshop for nongovernmental organizations and will publish the results of both of the meetings.

But what sets the British nanotech advisory process above others, including the United States', is its simultaneous study of public attitudes toward nanotechnology. The group is inviting market research companies to survey "1000-2000 people to establish what is the awareness of nanotechnology amongst members of the public" and to hold "workshops with members of the public to explore their ideas about nanotechnology, and to identify and discuss any potential concerns or questions that might arise." There will also be a monthlong "Web consultation" to allow anyone to (just love the genteel British wording) "engage with the project and inform the working group's thinking."

The British working group should be applauded for recognizing early the importance of public perception -- oftentimes wholly divorced from fact yet just as important a consideration as real science -- when formulating public policy.

The British scientific community has apparently learned from recent history. Its experience with this phenomenon has some rather frightening consequences and implications. I'm working on a Small Times column about this subject and, no, I'm not talking about genetically modified organisms. This is a perception-vs.-reality issue that more directly effects the health of society's most vulnerable, and has even touched me personally. More later.


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