The Nanotechnology Engagement Group consisted of experts set up to investigate “upstream engagement” in the context of 6 different public engagement projects on nanotechnology.
Problems and Purpose
The project was driven by the need to develop public policy on nanotechnology and was strongly linked to the cross-government Nanotechnology Issues Dialogue Group (NIDG). It was the ideal opportunity to test the idea of ‘upstream engagement’ (where engagement takes place before decisions are made) and learn from a number of projects which were engaging directly with the public in one specific area of science. The aim was to find out what worked and to evaluate the use of the outcomes for policy creators.
Background History and Context
The UK Government wants constructive, inclusive, and open public debate and dialogue. To do this, the government will work to move the debate forward, beyond simplistic notions of the public being ignorant of science, or being either pro-science or anti-science; and beyond crude notions of a particular technology being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The Government will also work to enable the debate to take place ‘upstream’ in the scientific and technological development process, and not ‘downstream’ where technologies are waiting to be exploited but may be held back by public scepticism brought about through poor engagement and dialogue on issues of concern.
The drive to move public engagement upstream arises from a concern about the role of the public in helping to inform the setting of research strategies and conditions for technological development. The principal aim of such initiatives is to encourage public deliberation about the underlying purposes of scientific research and technological innovation. That is, public voices should not only be heard when it comes to the regulation of technologies, but can also help shape technological trajectories. 
One of the first areas of science and technology to become a test case for upstream engagement was nanotechnologies. In 2004, the RS and Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) identified three ways in which nanotechnologies can be considered upstream: first, the future direction of technological development was not yet established; second, the social and ethical impacts of nanotechnologies were uncertain; and third, public attitudes towards nanotechnology were not yet fixed.
The UK government’s support of nanotechnology research dates back to the mid-1980s. However, it was the launch of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000, with funding now in the order of US$1 billion a year, that propelled nanotechnology to its current status as a global research priority. This excitement about potential benefits that proponents see flowing from research on nanotechnologies is not universally shared. In 2002, the Canadian-based environmental and development NGO, the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), called for a moratorium on the use of manufactured nanoparticles in research or any new commercial products. The ETC Group had earned a reputation as an ardent critic of corporate exploitation of agricultural biotechnology, and they applied a similar analysis to the burgeoning field of nanotechnology. In early 2003, the group published a critique of the direction nanotechnology research was taking. The report detailed many of the claims made by nanotechnology’s more ardent proponents and argued that these utopian visions raised serious questions for society, particularly in terms of the environment and economic development in the global South. 
In response to a report into the potential applications of nanotechnology, the UK government (who had commissioned the report) endorsed the call for public dialogue as a central element in its goal of ‘building a society that is confident about the governance, regulation and use of science and technology’ in the interests of ‘securing a future for nanotechnologies’. The UK government stated its commitment to ‘promoting constructive dialogue on nanotechnologies’ and agreed that ‘properly targeted and sufficiently resourced public dialogue will be crucial in securing a future for nanotechnologies’.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Sciencewise-ERC funded the project, while Involve were responsible for delivering the project. The case study explains that the project was funded through open competition, not commissioned to provide input into a live policy area .
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. 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.
Involve are public participation specialists; bringing institutions, communities and citizens together to accelerate innovation, understanding discussion and change. 
Participant Recruitment and Selection
No public participants were directly involved in this project - this was research and coordination of six dialogue projects on Nanotechnology.
The Group itself was made up of dialogue practitioners, academics, nanotechnology scientists, science institutions, science communicators, and Government representatives.
Methods and Tools Used
NEG was set up to capture the learning from public engagement on nanotechnologies by:
- Carrying out research into different stakeholders’ expectations of public engagement with nanotechnologies
- Mapping current public engagement activities related to nanotechnologies in the UK and internationally
- Identifying lessons from other engagement activities
- Analysing how the lessons learned relate back to the range of interested audiences and the spectrum of engagement activities undertaken
- Communicating the learning to Government, other stakeholders, nanoscience researchers and the wider public 
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The NEG studied the following 6 projects.
- NanoJury UK: A two-way citizens’ jury on nanotechnologies that ran in June and July, 2005. The first half of the jury process explored an issue that participants chose, while the second half focused on nanotechnologies.
- Small Talk: A programme of activities aimed to support science communicators to facilitate dialogue about nanotechnologies between members of the public and scientists.
- Nanodialogues: A series of four experiments in new methods of upstream deliberative public dialogue, focusing on nanotechnologies.
- Nanotechnology, Risk and Sustainability: A research project to explore how social and scientific visions influence science policy and research, and experimentation with new ways to facilitate dialogue between scientists and the public on upstream scientific issues.
- Citizen Science @ Bristol: A programme of activities seeking to engage young people in discussions about the role of science and technology in society. Two events focused on nanotechnologies.
- Democs for Schools: A conversation game designed to enable small groups of people to engage with complex public policy issues.
Further details of these are available in the final report (see )
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
A clear result of the NEG process was that it was able to recognise and document that direct engagement between scientists and the public creates change, as well as significantly increasing the knowledge of all those involved in the issue. In terms of policy-making, the NIDG clearly acknowledges the NEG findings in its work, although actual policy development may be some way off.
The scientists who took part were clearly affected by the change. Some have become advocates of the process of citizen engagement in science, telling those present at the final conference what had changed ‘back at the lab’ as a result of their involvement. This change is very important and could create a ‘trickle down’ effect as more scientists become comfortable with the notion of engagement on nanotechnology. Study of the detailed evaluations and recordings of discussions showed that deliberation of the kind undertaken in public dialogue does shift opinion.
The project also found that in the relatively new field of public dialogue, the vocabulary used can sometimes be confusing and problematic. The final report provides a glossary of terms, which may prove to be useful to many people.
The project also provided further evidence that the public has a large appetite and capacity for dialogue around scientific issues. This means it will be necessary to improve access to the information and process of public dialogue to allow members of the public who are outside the ‘official’ dialogue to be included.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The project team would have liked more time to conduct analysis and to reflect on the findings. The institutions running the dialogues would have benefited from more preparation on how to take forward the results. Although dialogue on nanotechnology appeared to be successful and popular, there were some voices who felt it might just be a ‘fad’.
NEG started out with perhaps too broad a remit - it would have been useful to have focused on specific questions from the beginning rather than covering a large number of activities and reports. This would have focused the research and would have enabled a stronger evidence base for arguments in favour of dialogue on nanotechnology.
The project managers found it both challenging and rewarding to work with so many different people from different backgrounds and with different approaches to public engagement - ultimately, this was a real strength of the project.
The process of engaging the public largely worked on most levels but the project found that only a very few citizens were involved and affected in most types of process. Relatedly, the project concluded that if the aim of increasing legitimacy around decision-making in new areas of science is to be achieved, the next challenge is to increase meaningful participation to include tens of thousands of people not just a small group of citizens.
A Core Group was responsible for the logistics and for driving forward the project and was directed in its work by the NEG. The backbone of the process was a series of meetings of the NEG with a midway public conference. The final report was launched at a workshop for scientists, project organisers, public participants, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and policy-makers, at the Institute of Physics in London in June 2007.
The research took two forms: in-depth interviews with scientists and public engagement practitioners, and a thematic analysis of the approach and outcomes from each project. Interview questions focused on the impact on eventual policy and on the impact of the dialogue process on the participants.
 Sciencewise (2007) “Case Study: Nanotechnology Engagement Group”
 Gavelin, K, Wilson, R and Doubleday, R (2007) “Democratic Technologies: The Final Report of the Nano Technology Engagement Group”, Involve
 Sciencewise (2017) “Nanotechnology Engagement Group” [ONLINE] Available at: https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20170110132827/http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/nanotechnology-engagement-group-neg/