It seems the world of nanotechnology has been preoccupied with the notion of “pubic engagement” lately. But until now the calls for its use have mostly centered around concerns about whether there are any risks associated with its use in myriad products.
My issues with this exercise I have noted before on a number of occasions on this blog, which range from the cynical idea that they serve mainly as a public relations stunt to the dangerous thought that the mob is suddenly in charge of deciding the direction of science. So I started to get nervous when I saw this latest plea to the public coming from the White House for the public’s input on how nanotechnology can best be applied to create the biggest economic benefit to society.
You see the White House has determined that nanotechnology is one side of a Golden Triangle of technologies that additionally includes Information Technology and Biotechnology. Two members of the President’s Council on Science and Technology (PCAST), namely Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt and Shirley Ann Jackson, decided that it would be a good idea to get the public’s input on how these three areas of science and technology could best be leveraged.
I am mainly interested on how this will work. Will it be based on call-in votes? So, if a majority chooses alternative energy applications over say cosmetics will government funding only go to developing nanotechnology applications for solar panels? Should be interesting.
You don’t have to be a bystander either. You can participate by going to the OpenPCAST website where you can contribute your ideas. Also, on Tuesday, June 22nd from 10:00AM to 2:30PM (that’s tomorrow and I assume based on Eastern Time) you can watch the Webcast from the PCAST website.
What is odd about this is that applications for nanotechnology that deliver the greatest economic benefit are not going to be determined by call-in votes like some kind of twist on “American Idol”. They will result from a need being addressed in the marketplace by a company that has found a way to deliver it in a way that provides them with a profit.
I suppose this seems like a good idea to somebody at PCAST and I can imagine the positive spin it got in some committee meeting with words like: “Empowerment”, “Democratic” and “Public Engagement”.
But let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment, what on earth is this going to accomplish? If PCAST is really worried about how its Golden Triangle is going to generate economic benefit maybe they should take a look at the models currently at work for innovation and developing technology and have a rethink on that issue.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.