Madison's Fair Trade Coffee house became a Nano Café last Tuesday evening, when we joined a group of about 40 to talk nanotech. We weren't luddites meeting in secret and did not whisper conspiracies. In fact, the only thing revolutionary about the meeting was its openness. We were there as citizens to talk democratically with the experts about the integration of nanotechnology into our society.
Science and technology are hugely important to people's lives, but the public participates little in their making. Clark Miller, head of the Nanotechnology and Society Initiative, led the discussion and stated that:
Most people don't always know how much science affects their lives, and scientists and policymakers rarely ask them what they think about it. The Nano Cafés will give people access to the normally somewhat mysterious realm of science research and bring them into a lively conversation about the impact of recent research.
The first Nano Café focused on the big picture of nanotechnology-what it is, who does it, and what its stakes are. Public participants will determine the topics of future Cafés, which will be more like a conversation than a lecture.
Nanotech will be everywhere. And while you know a nuclear power plant when you see one, nanotechnology will permeate the most mundane products. From tennis balls that don't lose their bounce to clear sunscreens, nanotechnology is already appearing on the store shelves. Unanswered questions, however, surround nanotech's health and environmental safety, making an open discussion a crucial part in its future.
Nano Cafés are one way to democratize nanotechnology in order to escape the rancor around nuclear power and genetic engineering. But unlike these technologies that opened to public discussion after their course was set, the public has a chance to steer nanotech in its earliest stages. Early discussions will be essential to accelerate the delivery of the most vital applications and duck the worst risks of a technology that may become as influential to the 21st century as automobiles were to the 20th.
Discussions on science and technology between scientists and the public are not something new. Their roots can be traced to Café Philosophiques in France, and Café Scientifique in both France and England. But how might these science cafes fare across the ocean? Very well it appears.
Maria Powell, a post-doctoral researcher and event coordinator remarked that:
[The] reactions thus far have been extremely positive. Some of the scientists who participated in the consensus conference and the Science Cafés initially expressed trepidation about interacting with citizens in a public venue, in part because they had clearly never been asked to directly interact with the public in this way before. But all of them were extremely positive about their experiences after participating. Many said they were very impressed by the thoughtful and intelligent questions citizens asked.
The momentum for more dialogue between experts and the public is well under way. Last year Madison held a Citizen's Consensus Conference on Nanotechnology, and several Science Cafés whose topics ranged from beta-proteins to climate change.
As nanotechnology becomes ubiquitous, we need to be involved and informed citizens. Let's not squander innovation. Yes, that means avoiding the worst-case scenarios, but it also means making sure the technology improves peoples' lives. Longer lasting tennis balls are nice, but we'd prefer nanotechnology for clean water. Today, 50% of the federal nanotech budget is for the military. Is that right? Science cafés and consensus conferences are forums to empower the public to make that call.
I am concerned that the Nano Cafe site lists the ETC Group of Ottowa, Canada as a "nano resource."
There were several occasions in recent years where ETC has issued press releases and reports that were highly critical of nanotechnology and were later shown to be poorly researched and inaccurate:
Those criticisms aside, I think it's really cool that these meetings are being held to open up the subject of nanotechnology to the general public. We definitely need more meetings like this to prevent nanotechnology disappearing into ivory towers and the pentagon.
Somo 'nano-dialogues' where also recently held in Zimbabwe with an Africa-development focus:
The potential of nanontech for improving access to clean water was one of the main focuses of the talks.