Citizens and civil society organizations are the new dialogue partners of industry, academia and government agencies with regard to the development of newly emerging technologies such as nanotechnology. ‘It’s an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the implications of promising new technologies enabling more informed decisions to be made’, says Lotte Krabbenborg, who will defend her PhD thesis at the University of Groningen on 29 November 2013.
That civil society participation in technology development is a topical issue become clear in the new European R&D framework programme Horizon 2020, which explores this theme under the slogan Responsible Research and Innovation.
In her thesis, Krabbenborg demonstrates that the required interaction is not easy to achieve. One of the characteristics of newly emerging technologies is the fact that all sort of promises are made by scientists (about better food or cheaper healthcare, for example) without knowing whether they will materialize. So the content for any kind of public debate is not immediately clear. However, Krabbenborg sees possibilities.
An important condition is that developers of technology must be willing to share their activities, considerations and dilemmas about ongoing projects more than is now the case. In this way, civil society actors could help the developers to identify areas that may run into problems.
Krabbenborg cites the example of the Environmental Defense Fund, which joined up with the chemical concern DuPont to devise a risk protocol for nanomaterial based on confidential knowledge of particular production processes.
The scenario workshops organized by social scientists, in which nanotechnology developers and end users were encouraged to respond to each other’s proposals, expectations and activities via explicit moderation, are another good example.
Open public debate about new technologies may one day be a normal societal practice. Krabbenborg: ‘The infrastructure is already in place. Media such as newspapers, TV, websites, Twitter, blog spots, etc. allow people to enter into discussions directly or indirectly about issues that affect society as a whole. But before we can do that for new technologies, all the parties concerned should develop new skills and engage in a learning process.’
In addition, Krabbenborg warns that more interaction does not necessarily mean more informed decision-making. The recent Dutch Societal Dialogue on Nanotechnology is an example of a missed opportunity.
‘What went wrong? A wide range of societal issues was addressed in separate projects, but not everything was disclosed in the subsequent public reports. In its evaluation, the special committee was more interested in creating visibility for nanotechnology and reaching a wide audience than in the actual content. Looking back, you can only conclude that despite all the good intentions, the dialogue fell short of the mark in this respect.’
Lotte Krabbenborg (Groenlo, 1980) studied at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht. She conducted her research in the Science and Society Group of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences of the University of Groningen. Her PhD research was part of the national R&D Consortium NanoNed (now NanoNextNL), Technology Assessment Department.
Krabbenborg’s supervisors were Prof. M.P. Gerkema, Prof. A. Rip, Dr H.A.J. Mulder and Dr H.J. van der Windt, and her thesis is entitled ‘Involvement of civil society actors in nanotechnology: creating productive spaces for interaction’.
More information: Lotte Krabbenborg, e-mail:
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