Yoghurt pot under the spotlight.

What are the implications of nanotechnology for the general public? What use is it to them? What are the risks and benefits? These are the types of questions that an online Knowledge Debate hopes to provoke.

What we hope will come out of it is a series of concrete research questions that we will actively follow up.

Rob Doubleday

Dr Robert Doubleday, Head of Research at the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge, is helping to coordinate a European online debate about developments in nanotechnology.  This process of public debate is designed to generate questions about nanotechnology and encourage academics to address some of these questions through research.

The project invites comments from members of the public and representatives of civil society organisations about five areas that employ nanotechnology: food and packaging, renewable energy, cancer diagnosis and treatment, ambient intelligence and environmental analysis of nano particles.

There have been a number of public dialogues about nanotechnology in recent years, but what makes this online debate different is its ambition to lead directly to new research. It aims to address gaps in knowledge about the use of nanotechnologies in society.

“This dialogue is not about reaching any conclusions; it’s about generating questions, which highlight the areas that need to be looked at in more detail,” said Dr Doubleday. “What we hope will come out of it is a series of concrete research questions that we will actively follow up.”

The nanotechnology Knowledge Debate is part of PERARES (Public Engagement with Research and Research Engagement with Society), a project funded by the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme. PERARES consists of a network of universities and research organisations across Europe committed to carrying out research in response to questions raised by civil society organisations and the wider public. The PERARES Knowledge Debate provides a means of discovering what potential consumers and citizens think about nanotechnology and addressing any issues that arise.

According to Dr Doubleday, most people have mixed reactions towards new technologies: “They are excited about the potential of new technologies - they can see the benefits - but they also feel deeply uneasy about the lack of collective capacity to manage our increasing dependency on complex technologies.”

PERARES provides a platform for debate, addressing this tension between hope for technological contributions to an improved quality of life on the one hand and unease about becoming more dependent on unmanageable technologies.

Dr Doubleday convened a round-table event which brought together nanotechnology researchers with social scientists, science policy advisors and civil society organisations. One area which emerged as posing new questions was the inclusion of engineered nanoparticles in food and its packaging.

Recently, the European Parliament and Commission agreed rules that will require food manufacturers to label all food containing engineered nano particles.

“When people read that there are nano ingredients in their food, what will they think? What will that information mean to them and how can they use it?” Dr Doubleday asks.

“These are important issues. How does labelling work with other forms of regulation? Does labelling enable wider public debate about the direction of innovation, or does it narrow this issue down to a question of consumer choice?”

Some people view nanotechnologies as a continuation and evolution of previous human efforts to improve food. Ricotta cheese, for example, has its specific texture because the fat particles are at the nano scale – a process that was used unintentionally years ago.

However, for many people the technology raises significant questions about who, if anyone, has an overview of the speed and direction of innovation.

“This is why projects which encourage public engagement with science are important – to try to provide neutral space for such discussion and to bridge the gap between researchers and the wider public,” Dr Doubleday said.

The online debate provides the general public and potential consumers with the chance to comment on any aspect of the development and use of nanotechnology in food and to ask questions which could be the subject for future research by scientists and social scientists.

To read more about the questions which come up through inclusion of engineered nano particles in food and packaging, please visit http://www.livingknowledge.org/discussion/diskutiere/2011/food-nanotechnology-and-labelling/  or please use the Comment facility below.


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