5.6 Be rational about responsibilities for nanotechnologies
Be rational about responsibilities for nanotechnologies
Current trends in Communicating Nanoethics
Interview with Dr Nayla Farouki, adviser to CEA, France
Ineke Malsch, firstname.lastname@example.org Interview 22-02-2012, published 27-02-2012
Dr Nayla Farouki is a philosopher and historian of science. She is an advisor to the French Atomic Energy Centre CEA in Grenoble. She calls for analysis of a decade of experience in debate about responsible nanotechnology and ethical expertise. Should policy makers still see a need for more transparency after such evaluation, this could take the form of more structured explanation and response sessions, avoiding emotional confrontations. Under the header of Communicating Nanoethics, ObservatoryNano aims to highlight key findings and developments in current dialogues and public engagement activities at EU level and in Member States and other countries. This way, emerging issues not discussed sufficiently and best practices in communication on ethical and societal aspects of nanotechnology can be identified and brought to the attention of policy makers in the fourth annual report on communicating nanoethics to be published online in the spring of 2012.
Ineke Malsch: The French government just published its response to the public debate on nanotechnology organised by the CNDP from 15 October 2009 until 24 February 2010. What do you think about this debate and about the government response?
Nayla Farouki: I have a problem with the notion of public debate when science is concerned. Irresponsibly, we have placed science and technology in the realm of public debate where it does not belong. Scientists debate among peers in specialised conferences and publications. Scientific – and even technological research - is a process the ultimate aim of which is unpredictable. The public doesn’t care much about scientific demonstration or so-called scientific “controversies”. The major concerns are about health (and therefore potential toxicity), practical day-to-day technologies (and this goes from credit cards to smart phones) and about whatever affects people’s environment and quality of life. These are mostly matters for citizen consumer groups and all those directly concerned with safety in the working place or in the neighbourhoods.
Upstream scientific and technological matters need a competence that can’t be acquired by a lay public in a few hours. Such debates quickly become emotional and the audience gets divided on lines that cannot converge…and the debate goes on and on. It never results in anything efficient. When the French government asked for the public debate, they specifically requested to focus on potential risks and toxicity of nanomaterials. However, the CNDP let the public free to discuss any topic they wanted. The debate was sabotaged by groups that wanted to stop anything proposed by the government. That the debate was a failure was a matter of course because it lacked a specific orientation. It was not just because of the sabotage by some groups. How to engage in dialogue with the public about science and technology? This should be done in a rational and structured way. The government response to the public debate was as well structured as can be, considering the chaotic development of the debate proper.
Ineke Malsch: You are rather critical of the way the discussion on responsible nanotechnology is going on. What are the main elements of your critique?
Nayla Farouki: I don’t have a problem with anything in particular, just with the two terms “responsible” and “nanotechnology”. If by responsible, we mean ethical, the ethics is all about individual responsibility between one and one’s own conscience. “Ethical” is distinct from “political” and from “legal”. From an ethical point of view, any and every person with sufficient awareness is considered free and responsible for his/her own acts. Responsibility of a field (such as nanotechnology) or a community does not exist. A field is too abstract. You can’t discuss the responsibility for nanotechnology as such. And talking about the responsibility of a group of people, as a collective, is dangerous. In history, whole groups of people have been charged instead of the individual who did something wrong (this goes from vendetta to open conflict). The notion of collective responsibility made Nazi’s kill Jews as a collective, for example. Such a tribal form of responsibility is excessively dangerous.
Each individual scientist is responsible for what he does, but not for what other scientists, politicians or industrialists do. Abstract notions must be separated from concrete cases. In the chain from fundamental science to marketed products, a huge number of different responsibilities should be distinguished. Each person in this chain is only responsible for his own actions. Before any allocation of responsibilities, I need to start by analysing the field group by group. A fundamental scientist may, for example, be characterising graphene. Why should he be held responsible for a final product on the market that may not show up before decades?
Nanotechnology as such does not exist. It consists of many very different fields, including nanoelectronics, nanobiotechnology, nanotechnologically developed objects which remain at the macroscopic level, nanomaterials and nanoparticles. The field is too large, it has to be analysed and then we should think about the norms and values related to each discipline. The societal and ethical consequences of nanomedicine on the one hand and nanotechnology applied to building and construction on the other are very different.
Ineke Malsch: Is a shift in focus of the debate needed? If so, in what way?
Nayla Farouki: As I said earlier, I don’t like the idea of a debate. One constructive endeavour could be a shift in reflection, for a start, on the value and efficiency of all of those debates. After one decade of debate on nanotechnology, ObservatoryNano could take a distant view of the debates organised so far and analyse the scene. What have the debates brought to the community in general and to consumers, politicians and scientists in particular? We need a pause in the idea of debating of anything. It is currently too emotional. A time out is needed to make an analysis before the debate – if any – can continue in a different way.
Ineke Malsch: It appears that a wide variety of stakeholder groups and publics has been engaged in dialogue about nanotechnology in France. Have all relevant groups been included? Which if any groups should be engaged in the future according to you?
Nayla Farouki: The notion of stakeholder groups originates from industry and was limited specifically to three types of people: shareholders, employees and the real “stakeholders”, people who live in the vicinity. It was first proposed in the 1980s or 1990s. The idea of a stakeholder was not meant to include anyone who considers themselves stakeholders. The intention was to broaden the community to which industry was accountable from shareholders alone to include employees and neighbours: legitimate stakeholders, those who partake in the risks, not just anybody. Other groups got involved as stakeholders because they pushed themselves with a wide variety of individual interests.
Nanotechnology is too wide and the notion of stakeholder has become too wide. For products on the market, legitimate stakeholder groups are consumer groups, sanitary agencies, workforce representatives and authorities. These groups should be given powers to interact with EU and governments and influence decision making on regulations. But these particular stakeholders should be involved only at that level, not at the level of fundamental research. Laboratories don’t put products on the market and their by-products are recycled in closed environments.
This does not mean that one should deny all responsibility to scientists. Of course, a scientist is responsible if he develops a useless toxic material and does not destroy it or if he transfers a useful but dangerous material to industrialists without attracting their attention to its toxicity. After that, the industrialist is responsible if he knowingly puts this material in a product. Finally, the shop keeper is responsible if he sells products he knows can be harmful without informing the client. As you see, the chain of responsibilities ought not to put all the blame on one single category of people.
This question has appeared with the European Commission Code of Conduct for Nanoresearch. The notion that scientists can be held responsible for future centuries was rejected. Scientists can’t be judged to be responsible for long term unforeseen consequences. E.g. When Nobel invented dynamite, he thought it would be good for demolishing rocks and in construction. He regretted the military uses governments made of it. For responsibility to be ethical it has to be personal. Legal responsibility falls under the judicial powers and political responsibility is a matter to which elected representatives are accountable. Ethical actions can be outside the law and the law can permit what some may consider as unethical. E.g. traditionally, someone was legally dead after his heart stopped. However, surgeons started transplanting organs in brain-dead people whose heart was still beating. There were ethical but illegal actions, which only became mainstream when the law was changed. In war, killing people suddenly becomes legitimate while illegal in everyday life and unethical by nature. These are very important differences, both in terms of the meaning of the notions as well as for their respective consequences on evaluations and value judgements.
Ineke Malsch: Do you see a need for particular new regulation or voluntary measures to govern responsible development of nanotechnology? If so, at which level should such measures be taken (national, EU, global)?
Nayla Farouki: I do not understand “responsible nanotechnology”. Who and what specifically are we talking about? I need a panel including representatives from fundamental science up to distribution centres that sell products with nanoparticles or nanostructured materials inside them. These are around ten different actors. A different notion of responsibility is tied to each one of them. The responsibility towards fellow citizens increases as you go towards real products on the market.
Ineke Malsch: What can the European Commission or other governments interested in stimulating dialogue on responsible development of nanotechnology learn from the French experience?
Nayla Farouki: This experience teaches mostly what should not be done. On the positive and constructive side, I prefer the projects of engagement with the public organised in the UK. In 2006, funding bodies in the UK decided to create a public exchange about nanotechnology for health. They selected a representative sample of the population of five cities and invited them to two days of meetings. The participants were offered a daily allowance. They listened to presentations by scientists on the role nanomedicine can play in the future. Then they deliberated about this and came up with their views, fears and questions. In 2010, the same was done for synthetic biology. People here do not consider themselves as stakeholders. The random public has no a priori ideas about science. In this exercise they reacted in an informed way, not out of ignorance. I advise the responsible persons in the European Commission and Member States, if they want this kind of transparency, not to organise debate but explanation and response sessions. It should be dispassionate and must avoid the sterile confrontation between technophiles and technophobes. It should be organised by an institution, not handed over to private societies or NGO’s that could have their own agenda. Keep it rational, not emotional. Polls systematically show that people are not against nanotechnology, but have reasonable questions and concerns. Such exercises should be repeated every 3-4 years, to find out how progress has been perceived by citizens.
Ineke Malsch: How do you see your own role in or opposed to the continuing dialogue on responsible (nano)innovation?
Nayla Farouki: I can tell you where I do not want to be involved. I don’t want to participate in the delusion that ethics is a matter of expertise. The real expertise – in ethical theory or in the history of ethics - is among academic professors in ethics, and these are usually trained in philosophy and in some countries in theology, but certainly not in sociology or political science. Other people claiming to have expertise should not be empowered to express ethical judgements on someone else’s actions. As a professor of philosophy myself, I can teach philosophy of ethics, but that does not make me an expert on other people’s ethics. Every adult has unique expertise in his or her own ethics. I don’t want to play a role in defining so-called “ethical” issues or in anything that is collectively judgemental. We should use good old analytical methods to identify the issues and the responsibilities at hand. I also don’t want to be part of a chaotic, unorganised and/or instrumentalised debate that lacks clear aims and objectives and is unstructured. I am willing to be part of an analytical, dispassionate and well-structured activity. It should certainly not obey to any individual agenda and should seek the general interest, because otherwise it will be merely confrontational. Concerning research, I don’t want to participate in anything where people with no legitimate expertise allow themselves to be judgemental about what researchers ought or ought not to do.
Another matter: We did not talk as yet about expertise in risk and risk management. I regret that because there are several misunderstandings that are tied to this notion. On the one hand, risk does not come without benefit; and when the impression is given that there is a specific risk with no benefit tied to it, citizens are given the idea of a society divided against itself; the risk is for some and the benefits for others. I do not think that this is a healthy political or pedagogical attitude. On the other hand, and since the inception of the concept of risk, it is evaluated on the probability of something occurring, and this probability is computed on the basis of previous occurrences and in a precise and limited context. The risk-idea in abstracto is meaningless. And, until now, it has very minor meaning related to nanotechnology. Why don’t we also talk about the risk of seeing everything through the prism of risk?
Ineke Malsch: Yet, risk assessment is a discipline taught in universities. It includes methods to deal with uncertain risks, e.g. toxicology.
I do not put in doubt the legitimacy and validity of risk assessment. But the discipline produces security engineers. Risk assessment in a factory, a hospital or an airport is constantly on the experts’ minds and it is perfectly normal to have risk assessment taught in universities. Where nanotechnogies are concerned, risk assessment to reduce uncertainty will take time and may not bring any results in the short term. Nanoparticles in pollution from car combustion represent a far bigger actual risk to human health than nanoparticles that are currently produced in industry. Is it reasonable to talk about the uncertain risk of a new technology while certain technologies we use every day represent a risk that is absolutely certain? Toxicology is a science that can help reduce uncertainty where nanoparticles are concerned. When this starts to bring results, a risk can finally be calculated on a rational basis.
Name: Dr Nayla Farouki
Function: Philosopher and historian of science. Scientific advisor to CEA-Grenoble.
Organization: Centre d’Energie Atomique (CEA)
Role in the debate on nanotechnology, ethics and society: Expert in history of ideas, ethical theories, epistemology and philosophy of science. Dr Farouki is scientific advisor to CEA Grenoble including on nanotechnology issues and member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the EU project Time for Nano http://www.timefornano.eu/content/sab. She has contributed to the debate on nanoethics through articles, blogs and participation in panel discussions.
Farouki, Nayla, “Whose ethics in research? Values, expertise and the legitimacy of it all,” Special report in Strategic Watch Nanomedicine No. 4 December 2010. Observatoire des Micro et NanoTechnologies, CEA, Grenoble. p 15-16. http://www.omnt.fr/index.php/en/thematique/index/12
 http://www.debatpublic-nano.org/ / http://www.developpement-durable.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/Les_engagements_du_Gouvernement_sur_les_suites_a_apporter_au_debat_public_relatif_au_developpement_et_a_la_regulation_des_nanotechnologies.pdf
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