Nanodialogues Public Engagement on Nanotechnology (UK)
- General Issues
- Science & Technology
- Specific Topics
- Scope of Influence
- Parent of this Case
- BBSRC and EPSRC joint response to the ‘Nanodialogues: Engaging Research Councils’ project
- Engaging Research Councils? An evaluation of a Nanodialogues experiment in upstream public engagement
- using science to create a better place - A people’s inquiry on nanotechnology and the environment
- Nanodialogues: EA A people’s inquiry on nanotechnology and the environment
- sciencewise final report - Nanodialogues A series of ‘upstream’ dialogue experiments
- final report (Zimbabwe) - The Role of New Technologies in Potable Water Provision: A Stakeholder Workshop Approach
- Start Date
- End Date
- Time Limited or Repeated?
- A single, defined period of time
- Make, influence, or challenge decisions of government and public bodies
- Make, influence, or challenge decisions of private organizations
- Spectrum of Public Participation
- Total Number of Participants
- Open to All or Limited to Some?
- Limited to Only Some Groups or Individuals
- Targeted Demographics
- General Types of Tools/Techniques
- Facilitate dialogue, discussion, and/or deliberation
- Propose and/or develop policies, ideas, and recommendations
- Facilitator Training
- Professional Facilitators
- Face-to-Face, Online, or Both
- Types of Interaction Among Participants
- Discussion, Dialogue, or Deliberation
- Ask & Answer Questions
- Information & Learning Resources
- Written Briefing Materials
- Expert Presentations
- Decision Methods
- Idea Generation
- General Agreement/Consensus
- Communication of Insights & Outcomes
- Public Report
- Type of Funder
- National Government
- Formal Evaluation
Nanodialogues engaged the public on how to take forward the new and challenging area of nanotechnology research . It incorporated four different experiments in public dialogue; public inquiry, focus groups, stakeholder workshops and deliberative dialogues.
Problems and Purpose
Nanotechnology is the study of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale. There is much debate on the future implications of nanotechnology. It may be able to create many new materials and devices with a vast range of applications such as in medicine, electronics, biomaterials and energy production. Conversely, nanotechnology raises many of the same issues as any new technology, including concerns about toxicity, environmental impact and their potential effects on global economics.
Nanodialogues was developed as a result of recommendations by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering on how the Government should take forward the new and challenging area of nanotechnology research. The project involved a series of ‘upstream’ dialogue experiments, which enabled experimentation in public engagement, as well as the opportunity to examine different nanotechnology issues from a range of perspectives.The project involved four different experiments, co-ordinated by Demos, in partnership with the Environment Agency (EA), Practical Action, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and Unilever. Each dialogue process was tailored to the needs of the partner, who used the results to help develop its own policies on nanotechnology, and on how it would engage with the public and other stakeholders in the future. Each partner had different aims under the overarching project objectives relating to their focus of work, covering policy development, nanotechnology uses in developing countries, understanding the public, and corporate science.
The overarching objectives of the project were to
- Experiment in a theoretically informed way with new methods of ‘upstream’ public dialogue
- Ensure that the dialogue experiments were developed to help institutions make decisions and set priorities
- Generate resources to enrich debate within the scientific community and wider society around the implications of nanotechnology
- Identify wider lessons learned to help develop the policy and practice of public engagement in science and technology issues. 
Background History and Context
In June 2003, the UK Government commissioned the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering (the UK’s national academies of science and of engineering, respectively) to conduct an independent study on nanotechnology. Their report included a recommendation to carry out public engagement to find out what people think about this complex science and its possible applications in order to inform policy decisions. In response to this report, in 2005, the UK Government acknowledged some of the immediate policy challenges and created a cross-departmental Nanotechnology Issues Dialogue Group to address them. At the same time, the Nanotechnology Engagement Group (NEG) was set up to oversee public engagement through projects such as the Nanodialogues.
Demos and the other partners in the Nanodialogues wanted to explore the prospect that nanotechnologies could open up new sorts of conversation between scientists, policy makers and wider society. They were keen to test the extent to which, rather than simply becoming the next big scientific controversy, nanotechnology could become an arena where relationships between science, innovation and democracy could be redesigned. 
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The project was commissioned by the following organisations: Demos, Environment Agency, Practical Action, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Unilever. Support in the form of finance and expertise was provided by Sciencewise ERC.
Following an open call, Demos were contracted to deliver the UK element of the project, Practical Action were contracted to deliver the Zimbabwe element of the project. Project evaluators for the two strands of the dialogue were Dr Jason Chilvers of the University of East Anglia, and Liverpool University’s Dr Kevin Edson Jones and Proffessor Alan Irwin.
Sciencewise-ERC is a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills funded programme to bring scientists, government and the public together to explore the impact of science and technology in our lives. It helps Government departments and agencies commission and use public dialogue to inform policy making, involving science and technology issues. Its core aim is to develop the capacity of Government to carry out good dialogue, to gather and disseminate good practice, have successful two-way communications with the public and other stakeholders, and to embed the principles of good dialogue into internal Government processes.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The project consisted of four different strands:
EA Public Inquiry
- 13 members of the public
- 15 Experts
The following information is given on participants in the EA report:
“We recruited 13 people from East London, an area of the country which has received more industrialisation, remediation and regeneration than most. Our group contained two teachers, a recruitment consultant, two nurses, a web developer and a full-time mother. The thing that united them was some form of participation in the life of their local community. This local involvement had two benefits. Firstly, our participants were talkative and keen to be involved.” 
Practical Action (Stakeholder Workshop):
This experiment involved 6 community representatives, such as local farmers, and 7 water scientists.
BBSRC and EPSRC Deliberative Dialogue Process
Recruitment details on the BBSRC and EPSRC element are limited. The report explains:
“The first group was of fulltime mothers with children of school age. The second was a group of young professionals with a declared interest in technology.” 
Unilever focus groups
- 28 public participants
- 10 scientists
Methods and Tools Used
The project delivered four different experiments in public dialogue all of which had their own specific objectives:
The Environmental Agency’s experiment involved a ‘People’s Inquiry’, which met for a total of 15 hours in East London and followed a similar format to a citizens' jury.
The Practical Action experiment took place in Harare, Zimbabwe, where a three-day workshop explored how nanotechnology might help local communities to secure clean water.
The BBSRC/EPSRC experiment was a three-day public forum in Swindon to explore research priorities. The process was described as mixing the citizens jury model with focus group methodology, to develop deep conversations of the issues and to explore the potential for public engagement with research council science.
The Unilever experiment undertook four focus groups followed by a reconvened workshop in Liverpool and London to discuss private-sector science and the nature of innovations
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Environmental Agency People's Inquiry
The Environment Agency conducted a people’s inquiry - similar to a citizens' jury - into nanotechnology and the environment. Its specific objectives were:
- To see how members of the public understood novelty, uncertainty and regulation
- To give a small group of the general public the opportunity to contribute to shaping policy on new technologies
In summary, the report describes the following process:
The EA brought 13 members of the public together to talk with a range of experts, undertake research (such as searching on the internet), reflect together on what they learned and draw some conclusions. Their approach was similar to that used for a citizens’ jury.
The panel sessions took place in January and February 2006 on three separate Saturdays, with a free weekend between each of them. Panel members had all signed up to be involved in exercises such as this, without expressing any particular interest in issues such as nanotechnology or environmental remediation. Experts were drawn from a range of organisations.
Over the three days, the people’s panel talked, listened, and got to know each other. The EA brought before them a collection of some of the world’s leading experts in nanotechnology and remediation, covering specifics from nanotoxicology, ecotoxicology, land contamination, land remediation, urban regeneration to law and the politics of regulation. 
Practical Action: Zimbabwe
The Practical Action experiment took place in Harare, Zimbabwe, where a three-day workshop explored how nanotechnology might help local communities to secure clean water. Its objectives were:
- To understand the problem of getting clean water into two Zimbabwean communities
- To identify conditions under which nanotechnology might work for these communities
The workshops unfolded as follows:
- Introductions, what will we do, what do we want to achieve?
- Nanotechnology and the Nanodialogues
- Problem definition
- Chaired session: Modelling of Key Issues, Problem Conceptualisation
- Cohesion: Summary of problem characteristics/features/definitions
- Comments views testimonies from scientists- dialogue with the public
- People’s views: Water and Nanotechnologies
- Consolidation: views issues, ideas
- Questions to the scientists
- What behavioural changes are needed?
- What economic changes are needed?
- What challenges remain for scientists?
- Recommendations: to scientists, government, NGOs, researchers, others
- Reflections on the workshop
BBSRC and EPSRC
In Summer 2006, over three sessions, the BBSRC and EPSRC ran a deliberative dialogue process, involving scientists, members of the public and Research Council staff, as an experiment in public engagement. Stimulus material and scientific perspectives focused on nanotechnology and the role of BBSRC and EPSRC in supporting and funding nanotechnology research.
The approach was described as “a departure from the standard Citizens’ Jury model, in which a group is brought together from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible, we wanted to build upon focus group methodology in order to develop deep discussions of issues. The purpose of the focus groups was to encourage discussion of potential issues arising for nanotechnology, within a framework set by participants.” 
The sample consisted of two groups, each of which met twice, with a gap of two weeks between the sessions. A third session was organised as a final workshop in which to develop shared conclusions and recommendations. Full details of questions can be found in the report (see )
Unilever focus groups
The Unilever experiment undertook four focus groups followed by a reconvened workshop in Liverpool and London to discuss private-sector science and the nature of innovations, with 28 public participants and 10 scientists. Its specific objective was to assess the potential for upstream public engagement in corporate science. 
Key Findings from the Project
- The general public can and does care about new technologies and how their development and use is managed.
- The public can understand and work with complex scientific and technical issues.
- The need for continuing public engagement as the science develops was clearly identified.
- The project identified the need for new political spaces that bring together the ‘uninterested’ public with interest groups.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The project successfully influenced the EA, EPSRC and BBSRC policy on nanotechnology in a number of ways including:
The EA changed how it regulated nanoparticles in the environment as a result of listening to the recommendations of public participants.
The results of the dialogues were fed directly into the EPSRC Ideas Factory (2007), which considered priorities for £1.5 million research funding.
Two public participants from the People’s Inquiry were invited to present the outcomes of the Inquiry to Defra’s Nanotechnologies Stakeholder Forum.
The results were considered by the cross-Government Nanotechnology Issues Dialogue Group (NIDG) which works to enable the development of nanotechnologies and co-ordinate Government activities across departments, agencies and research councils
The results and learning were used by the NEG.
The dialogues shaped priorities for research council funding of later nanotechnology research. The dialogues helped create more robust science policy on nanotechnology.
The experiments demonstrated the ability of the public to consider difficult issues and make a valuable contribution to policy governance. The need for more everyday links between scientists and the public was identified. Participants want to see the outputs of dialogue so they know what is going forward to influence policy and to know how their input has been used in decision-making. 
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Summary of Good Practice
The length of time allowed for public deliberative discussions, either in a single block of time or reconvening several times, allowed the participants sufficient time to absorb new information, react on it and discuss it with each other, and come to considered views. In the People’s Inquiry, participants agreed and wrote the conclusions and 12 recommendations themselves, ensuring they controlled the outputs.
Although overall boundaries were agreed by the project teams in advance, the public were able to take discussions in the direction they wanted (to some extent), and to define questions for scientists as well as ask for information.
Uncertainty was not hidden. The experiment began with an admission of uncertainty from all sides. This allowed for an open and constructive series of exchanges.
A range of innovative methods was used in the different experiments including scenarios from which working groups produced collages with visualisations of the way they imagined a nano-future and an alternative future.
Each partner produced its own report on its own experiment, allowing it to reflect on and describe its own experiences and learning. These reports were then used in a pamphlet produced by Demos.
Some participants from the EA’s People’s Inquiry met with key policy makers to submit their recommendations. Policy makers provided early feedback about the value of the Inquiry’s contribution and how their recommendations might be dealt with.
Although ‘upstream’ in one sense, some technologies were already in use. The focus was, in practice, on finding new policy solutions for a new technology, while recognising that this may mean it is difficult to identify policy impacts.
Process needs to come second; the ‘how’ of public engagement should always follow the ‘why’. New ways need to be found for members of the public to set the terms of debate, in negotiation with the organisations that invite engagement. The need for continuing public engagement as the science develops was identified clearly. But is was evident that the public can understand and work with complex scientific issues: people care about new technologies and how their development is managed.
Different value was accorded to public engagement in science and innovation in different systems. In Zimbabwe, scientists see community participation as vital but complicated; in the UK, systems often work against community and public engagement.
The impacts of public engagement can take a long time to be seen in terms of changes in policy, especially with upstream engagement.
The project identified the need for new political spaces that bring together the ‘uninterested’ public with interest groups.
Initial decisions on the detailed design of the dialogue need sufficient discussions between commissioning bodies (and advisory/oversight groups) and contractors to ensure clarity and agreement. 
Sciencewise (2017) “Nanodialogues” [ONLINE] Available at:https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20170110132808/http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/nanodialogues-2/
 Sciencewise (2007) “Case Study: Nanodialogues” Sciencewise
Irving, P, Bone, B, Hayes, E, Colvin, J, Irwin, J, Stilgoe, J, Jones, K (2006) “Using science to create a better place: A people's inquiry on nanotechnology and the environment”, Environment Agency June 2006
 Stilgoe, J and Kearnes, M (2007) “Nanodialogues report: Engaging research councils”, demos, March 2007
 Grimshaw, D, Stilgoe, J, Gudza, L (2006) “Report on the Nano-Dialogues held in Harare, Zimbabwe”, Globalisation and the diffusion of nanotechnologies to help the poor, October 2006