Emerging technology debates

What are the new technologies that are going to shape the coming decade? This is a question addressed by Andrew Maynard in a recent post on 2020Science. In my opinion Andrew has come up with a pretty sensible list, but, as I commented on his blog, for me the real issue is whether society has the means to have a robust and realistic debate about the deployment of these and other new and emerging technologies.

The record of the past isn’t encouraging. On the one hand we have spent 200 years driving technology based on fossil fuels while only recently beginning to understand the negative consequences of climate change; on the other hand many would see the debate about genetically modified crops as having limited the deployment of a potentially useful technology. We need to get better at this, so we can reap the benefits of technological innovation while avoiding or mitigating the risks.

Ultimately, I think this comes down to democratizing the decision-making about new technologies, but while that is easy to say, in practice it is much harder to achieve. We know what hasn’t worked in the past:

  • One-way transfer of information. The ‘Public Understanding of Science’ model is widely held to be ineffective and this is supported by considerable evidence. Having said this, the approach is still sometimes used, albeit in a veiled way, both within the scientific and technical communities and in Government.
  • Dialogue without influence. This is how I would characterise the present situation. Over the last decade there has been a real effort to engage society with the issues around new technological innovations but these often lead to limited impact on either research agendas or the trajectory of technology development. Take nanotechnology for example. Although in some senses this is a success story, with many examples of excellent public engagement activities, little has changed and the products of nanotechnology continue to be deployed. In many cases it is not even possible to identify whether products contain nano-materials in order for consumers to make informed choices. Is this really the result of informed debate?

So what is the solution? What can be done to help society make choices about technological innovation? I would offer up a few thoughts:

  • We need to be clear about the underlying principles and assumptions on which technological innovation is based. In my view the fundamental assumption is that the Market drives technological innovation. Under this assumption any technology that someone believes will make a profit will be developed; the role of Government is only to protect the safety of citizens. Whether you agree with this framework or not, we need to be clear that these are the rules of the game, and to change them we would need to raise the debate well above the level of individual technologies.
  • We need to develop and nurture trusted sources of information. Information about benefits and risks is at the heart of any debate about the deployment of new technologies. But often those that hold that information – scientists, businesses or NGOs – have, or are perceived to have, strong vested interests. Society needs some way of interrogating and weighing up the information to make balanced assessments. Of course, some would say this is a role fo Government, but for many the closeness of Government to business and the emphasis on economic objectives means that there is also a vested interest here too.
  • We need citizens who understand and interact with the process of research as well as its content. I think that the communication of science to the general public is lacking in the area of the process of research. In order to make balanced judgements about risks and benefits people need to not only engage with the ‘answers’ that research provides but also debate the robustness of those answers. In turn this means that citizens should engage with the way science works, the strengths and weaknesses of peer review, the interpretation of data and statistics and the nature of hypothesis testing. I don’t believe these and related issue are covered enough in our efforts to engage society with science and technology.

And finally, debates about emerging technologies need to happen on a global stage if they are going to make a difference. This is certainly a challenging agenda, but one that we must get right.