All the small things.....

It’s been quite a week for nanotechnology. On Monday the University of Surrey launched yet another task force in the area, on Tuesday the Times had a nanotechnology supplement and there was a series of meetings about public engagement in the area at the Institute of Physics organised by the NEG and Demos. Looking back, however, am not sure I have learned anything useful for all of this activity.

The University of Surrey meeting was held at Portcullis House. It assembled an impressive array of speakers Harry KrotoSteffi FriedrichsRichard Jones and Martin Strangwood) but managed to squander their experience and insights by having no discernible goal. It posed the question “Is Britain leading the way?” and then failed to actually address it. Harry made his usual impassioned plea for action as well as talk on science education and talking about his latest web based teaching tools. Steffi listed the growing relevance of nanotechnology to advances in healthcare and Richard made a brave attempt to link it to the challenges of sustainable energy, but Martin’s talk on nanotechnology in sports materials didn’t seem to fit this theme of social relevance. The slightly shambolic Q&A session was veering towards a fairly standard critique of government funding policy to support small businesses (name-checking DARPA and SBRI) when Sir Robin Saxby entered the debate to point out that the UK had a fairly strong venture capital activity and that anyone who had a reasonable business case could probably get support this way – and that maybe expecting the government to use taxpayers money to prop up those who could not build such a business case was unreasonable.

I got to the NEG/Demos meeting after lunch – the morning had been taken up with the always excellent Royal Society of Chemistry organised  Parliamentary Links Day (see another post). I therefore missed the feedback on the various public engagement activities that had taken place of the last few years and was instantly immersed in the debate about what should be done next in public engagement. The curtain raiser to this was David King describing his Foresight process – a 2 year detailed analysis by experts of the selected area – followed by responses from those who are involved. The 90 minutes allowed for this debate seemed insufficient time and the Q&A was mainly taken up with members of the audience stating their previously held views. After a break for fluids, we then settled back to a debate on whether there should be a new social contract for science. As the panel stated their cases I became more and more aware that I was the bad guy. They described the arrogance of scientists, the greed of industrialists and truly evil nature of those who consult to government.

Despite fear for my life if exposed, I paid enough attention to realise that they made some telling points. All the scientists I know develop hypotheses to fit the available data and then design experiments to test those hypotheses – and develop them if the new data doesn’t fit. They know that facts don’t really exist – there are results and interpretations. The criticism of those who drive evidence based policy through by not admitting an alternative hypothesis but quoting “scientific facts” is therefore valid.

Similarly, they point that solutions to societal problems ought to take account of what society actually wants. From my days in business I do remember that we spent large amounts of time attempting to discover what our customers actually wanted to buy from us. We knew that going in with a catalogue of existing products would get us sales, but that unless we listened to where they were going, the products and services we would offer them tomorrow would not be attractive and so not saleable. Once you get to the larger, societal “markets” then those who are the final “customers” need to have an input. History is littered with products and services, both private and public, that failed the “so what” test and had to abandoned.

Given the apparent disdain for scientists it was difficult to discover whether there were any others in the room, but that might well be part of the problem. As one of those who took part in the NanoJury process that formed part of last few year’s activities, I can honestly state that the discussions I had with jury in Huddersfield that June evening in 2005 have stayed with me and altered my approach to communication – but then every interaction a person tends to do that. The subsequent interpretation and re-interpretation of what was said is less impactful and mildly dis-spiriting. If you are a scientist, I think there is real value in taking the time to explain what you do, and why you do it, to those who are not scientists, but only if you listen to what they say in return. And I will have to conquer my new fear of social scientists!!

Materials UK
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