The UK government is taking this idea of public engagement for nanotechnology quite seriously. And it seems that the interactive capabilities of the Web 2.0 was just the tool they needed to put this seriousness to work.
First we had BIS (Department for Business Innovation & Skills) launch a website earlier this month that urged people to offer their opinions on the UK government’s nanotechnology strategy and even shape its final form.
The premise of the BIS site was characterized by at least one UK-based nanotech expert as a “crowd-sourced nanotechnology strategy”. With the BIS site you are provided a SWOT analysis for each chapter that are divided between cross-cutting themes and industry sectors and then each of these chapters has a handful of questions.
But for all the questions it remains a fairly static site. The questions are already posed for you rather than you posing your questions, for instance. And visually it gives off the aura that this material is not to be touched. One might say it’s the 1.0 of the Web 2.0 in design and feel.
On the other hand, a new UK public engagement website called Nano&me which was set up by an organization called the Responsible Nano Forum and funded by a grant from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills takes the visual and interactive capabilities of Web 2.0 and turns it up to 11.I should say in the name of full disclosure that I helped in the editing of some of the site’s copy. But this material almost seems incidental in the context of the site, which provides every visitor an opportunity to produce their own copy, their own point of view and to set the ground rules for the debate. Quite different from the BIS site, which tells you what the questions are and asks you to just respond to those. I think if one were to really press the owners of these two sites on what they expected these sites to do, you would probably finally get the answer that they are experiments and the truth is the outcomes are quite uncertain. As a self-confessed cynic, I am not sure that these sites perform much of a civic duty other than to give politicos something to cover their reputations and for the public to have the false sense that they are actually involved in shaping some policy even if it’s something as esoteric and ultimately meaningless to them as nanotechnology. But even as a cynic, I have to admit that it is hard to know how these sites will turn out and what kind of impact they will ultimately have.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.