10minus9 interview: Hilary Sutcliffe (nano and me)

A few months ago I came across the nano and me website, designed to provide an impartial source of information for lay audiences on all things nano.

The site was set up as part of a pilot scheme, and with initial funding having run out it’s now under threat. I’ve been thinking for some time about why a well-designed site, both technically supported and praised by some genuine scientific heavyweights, should fail to attract the attention its quality deserves.

There was no coordinated publicity push on general news sites, largely due to the tight initial budget.  This needn’t be a killer, since the internet has it’s own way of doing things which allows a kind of self-perpetuating PR. The problem is that asking for people’s opinions isn’t usually the best way to get them. Neutrality is at the core of nano and me, a laudable principle, but unfortunately not one to inspire (or rather provoke) debate.

There is a need for something like nano and me out there, run by people who genuinely care about emerging technologies and their effects on society, as Hilary Sutcliffe clearly does. I would hope that nano and me gets a second chance, and the opportunity to produce new content that genuinely does get the public involved.

  • Can you describe nanotechnology in one sentence?

Nano is a way of making things which takes advantage of the unusual properties of materials when they are very very very small.

  • How did you become interested in nano?

I was running a multi-stakeholder working group in 2005 looking at what are fair allocations of responsibility in society – from our own responsibilities, to those of government, business and ngos.  We started to look at case studies of what it would look like if all the actors took their responsibilities seriously and ‘did it right to start with’.  We looked at GM, but then identified nano as an emerging area where perhaps we could learn the lessons of the past.  I then sought to look what the lessons were and what needed to be done to have those work to make the technology work for us all.  I then approached Insight Investment and we developed the Responsible Nano Code with funding from Insight, the Royal Society and the Nano KTN and subsequently the RNF

  • You founded the responsible nano forum- what do you mean by responsible nano?

It considers the appropriate behaviours of different stakeholders if the technology were to be developed for the benefit of us all.  This is work in progress, the part of the point of the RNF and now our new evolution to MATTER is to explore what the responsibilities of the different actors might be if the technology was to be used for societal benefit, produced safely, considering social, ethical and environmental issues as part of that development and allowing the public have a real say in the way the technology develops. Basically building trustworthiness, not just trust – explored a bit more in my blog www.matterforall.org/blog

  • Is there a danger of nanotech being used irresponsibly?

What would irresponsibly mean?  Using without appropriate safety and testing – yes, in ways which could prove severely detrimental to people and the environment yes.  I am reading Robert Winston’s new book Bad Ideas, about the dangers human societies face from our inventiveness, there are always unintended consequences, but surely we can start to really learn from mistakes of the past and not be doomed to repeat them!

For example, nano is already used in dubious areas in some consumer products – I am sceptical, for example, about the use of nano silver in a baby’s dummy, or colloidal silver drinks in the US and about the use of fullerenes and nano gold in face creams, which were available here.  I don’t think sufficient testing has been done of the effects of these nano particles for their chosen use and event the benefit and effectiveness of these products thought through.

  • If you could introduce on piece of nano-policy, what would it be?

A clear policy to focus funding and attention on the socially beneficial uses of nano and a dedicated funding stream for nano EHS (environment, health and safety) research and testing working with business to make it happen.   The UK Nano Strategy launched recently doesn’t seem to have plans for the former or cash for the latter!

  • Which is more important, to consult with or to inform the public about nanoscience and technology?

If I had to pick, I would say informing actually.  Consulting could often be a waste of their time and our time and have no discernable impact on anything useful.  I would like to see impartial, easy to access information about all aspects of nano available for when people need it, with a programme of media communication funded to support that.  Basically our website nanoandme.org funded properly and some cash to communicate with the public through the media about the issues.

However most important, and trickiest, is public involvement.  That means giving the public a real say in how the technology develops and an influence over how their tax £ is spent on research and the applications in which it is used.

I know this provides real dilemmas – I am mindful of Henry Ford’s quote ‘If I had listened to my customers I would have given them a faster horse!’.  The public shouldn’t be driving the research agenda, they are mostly not equipped to do so and rather hope that the clever people who are paid to do this are doing it properly.

However, I am persuaded of the argument that technologies will shape our world in astonishing ways, that it is our money which is being used and that our values and views should be taken into account when decisions are being made.  Not just for moral or democratic reasons, but because if these technologies are to be beneficial for us, not just the companies making them, then we need be able to understand why and how so we can make an informed judgement. That process needs to start early.

If perhaps science and technology was the live political issue that many scientists wish it could be, and if people had the information to vote on that basis then I might feel that the democratic process serves the public well in that regard and that public involvement is less important – but it isn’t, so we have to think more carefully about how that can happen.

Again this thinking is evolving, there are good arguments on both sides, we need to think as nation how we approach this.

  • You also run the nano and me website- why is it important?

Even in the recent Science for All report no mention is made of how we give the public impartial information to help them make a judgement about science or its applications.  That is for me an important basis for building trustworthiness and trust. There are plenty of pro science websites, like Science So What, the Science Museums and others, and many anti-science approaches, but very few which aim to give thoughtful rounded information about the different stakeholder perspectives and the complex issues associated with areas from climate change to GM, nano to geoengineering, so that the public can take a look and make a decision for themselves based on the best possible information presented in an easy to understand way.  This is what Nano&me aimed to do.

The government has said they will convene a group to decide if the public needs information on nano, stakeholders involved in its development and pilot firmly agree it is important, it’s just a matter of cash.

  • What’s the biggest challenge in taking science to the masses?

The biggest challenge is having scientists and science communicators put themselves in the shoes of their audience and tailor their information to their view point, not try to cram as much science with a capital S in every bit of communication.  It is difficult to get over complex issues but advertisers manage it, politicians manage it and the media manages it, though in ways many of us don’t necessarily like.  Science communicators can manage it too.

Also stop thinking of us as ‘the masses’ or ‘the public’, they are your auntie, your kids, the guy in the post office, they are nice normal people with views and rights and interests and hopes and dreams and they are all different.  Modern media means we can tailor our messages and our listening to consider and reflect on the richness of views and perspectives without bundling us all together in a lump!

  • What’s the most amazing thing you’ve learned about nanoscience or nanotech?

I tend to get excited about applications, so apart from the basic fact that we are capable of inventing the techniques to even do nanoscience at all, which is astonishing, it is things like the invisibility cloak concept, printed solar cells, even miniaturisation uses in computing.  Boggles the mind, we are a scarily clever species!

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2 Comments on “10minus9 interview: Hilary Sutcliffe (nano and me)”

  1. Malize Says:

    Pardon my skepticism, though I think this vision fails in not taking to account the lack of interest of the general public.

    I recently read in a blog of a woman, who has a 15 year old kid, who thinks that milk comes from factories. And next generations will be even worse: kids are rised to be more and more stupid. The raise of the Neanthertals, they never became extint, they were latent, expecting for the new educative systems around the globe to bring them back.

    This Neanthertals will be the the docile voters of the future, so I wouldn’t expect that the hands that spend their taxes will fund interesting initiatives that could cause the providers of their income to start wondering where the cow came from, and thus taking some interest in learning if the cow is well treated and the impact this may cause in their health, because they may realize that the industrialized methods they use to extract the milk and what do they mix the milk with to make it cheaper is pretty disgusting. This may cause that people could ask for new ways of using the extracting methods, making the product more expensive and thus diminishing their benefits.

    If they don’t care about something as big as a cow, how would they care about somethig that is nano-sized? So, the fish (or the cow) bits its own tail again: no propper investment in implementing measures to bring general though necessary knowledges closer to general public causes their indifference about them, while this indifference causes that these investments are not requested.

    I would put my faith in roaches, they’re the future :P

    Then again, having my own IQ in a very high steem, I must confess that I didn’t understood some of the concepts contained in “what is nano?” section.

  2. Yes, you are right, there are many people who don’t know and don’t care about science and certainly not nano. They may not have the knowledge or the interest in the concepts, but they often care about applications, about mobile phone signals, what impact computers are having on their kids and about the milk and other issues if they read about it in the paper.

    Then there are large numbers of people who really care – I was in a butcher yesterday and they asked me if I wanted the label on my fresh chicken. When I questioned why I would, they said people often want to go home and look at the provenance of their chicken on the internet. Impressive, especially as the butcher is an arm and a leg in the first place and prides itself on the animal welfare of its meat. I figured they had it sorted on my behalf which is why I pay up.

    In addition, just because people don’t care, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care on their behalf. It is only ‘fair’ that companies and governments have a handle on the safety of products before they take our hard earned cash. When we break that trust is when even the totally uninterested get interested and lose any trust they may had in science, companies and governments.

    You are right about the ‘What is Nano Section’ of Nano&me, it is hard to understand and to talk about. Maybe we get 10minus9 to help us out if we ever get any cash to keep nano&me live!?

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