I very much enjoyed and appreciated the 2012 S.NET (Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies) conference in Enschede, Netherlands from Oct. 22-25, 2012. It was my first nano-themed conference and I suffered from an embarrassment of riches so what follows is just a sliver of the available presentation offerings and my opinions.
I’m sad to say that I have no sensible notes from the opening plenary (‘Emerging technologies — From Technology Push to Societal Pull’ with Dave Blank, Christos Tokamanis, and Pat Mooney on a panel moderated by Arie Rip) largely due to the fact that I’d been travelling continuously for about 15 or 16 hours by then and had trouble absorbing information. The next day was much better.
Public risk perceptions: Mary Collins talking about the Nanopants attack (protest) and about scientists’ approaches to public communication about nanotechnology risks ; Frederico Neresini discussing perceptions in Italy; and Craig Cormick providing more details about the nanosunscreen debacle in Australia.
Mary Collins (University of California at Santa Barbara) presented her work analyzing the various points of view from the science and non-science communities regarding discussions of public risk. She noted there is still concern that the GMO (genetically modified organisms) movement could happen again with nanotechnology and scientists are devoutly interested in avoiding this circumstance. By and large, most scientists want to promote some discussion about risks as a means of avoiding a ‘GMO disaster’ although there is no universal agreement as to which groups/social communities should be apprised. Some scientists favour elite groups only while others prefer a more universal dissemination of information. Collins noted that it is very difficult to find any documentation of scientists espousing the belief that communication of risk should be nonexistent. One audience member noted that a policy of suppressing discussion could be inferred by the lack of media coverage for an activist protest known as the ‘Nanopants attack’. Wired Magazine appears to have been the only media outlet to have covered the event by featuring a June 10, 2005 article by Howard Lovy,
On a chilly Chicago afternoon in early May, environmental activists sauntered into the Eddie Bauer store on Michigan Avenue, headed to the broad storefront windows opening out on the Magnificent Mile and proceeded to take off their clothes.
The strip show aimed to expose more than skin: Activists hoped to lay bare growing allegations of the toxic dangers of nanotechnology. The demonstrators bore the message in slogans painted on their bodies, proclaiming “Eddie Bauer hazard” and “Expose the truth about nanotech,” among other things, in light of the clothing company’s embrace of nanotech in its recent line of stain-resistant “nanopants.”
Frederico Neresini, University of Padua (Italy), discussed some of his work polling for attitudes toward nanotechnology risk and his tentative hypothesis that the more public debate there is on the topic, the more important trustworthiness becomes. Trust was discussed many times and in many contexts at the conference and seemed to be an emergent theme.
Craig Cormick, Australian Dept. of Innovation, discussed the surprising results of a recent poll in Australia which showed that 13% of the population doesn’t use any sunscreen due to concern about nanoscale ingredients (this finding was mentioned at more length in my Feb. 9, 2012 posting). He also noted that he was on the receiving end of some very personal attacks once this information was released. I hadn’t realized it was coincidental but, almost simultaneously, there was another project (analyzing sunscreens available on the Australian market for nanoscale ingredients) where they announced findings of many more sunscreens with nanoscale ingredients than were labelled as such. There weren’t many new details for public consumption but it was interesting to hear a first hand account. Cormick did offer a provocative idea during the session, ‘apply the precautionary principle to your risk messages’.
Chris Groves of Cardiff University (Wales) offered a lunchtime plenary talk titled, ‘Horizons of care: from future imaginaries to responsible innovation’. We were treated to a discussion of philosophy which featured Hegel and Deleuze amongst others. What I found most intriguing were Groves’ contentions that ‘vision’ is a problematic metaphor; that living in an ‘age of innovation’ means living in an ‘age of surprises’; and that science interprets the world by looking into the past. His quote from Hannah Arendt, “What we make remakes us” brought home the notion that there is a feedback loop and that science and invention are not unidirectional pursuits, i.e., we do not create the world and stand apart from it; the world we create, in turn, recreates us.
I was particularly taken with one of his last comments, ‘mapping as a metaphor for colonizing the future’. I’ve long been interested by the frequency of ‘mapping’ as a metaphor in scientific pursuits (mapping the genome, amongst many others). His comment reminded me that the great mapping bonanzas are associated with ‘colonizing’ various continents.
A big thank you is due to
- US National Science Foundation,
- the University of California at Santa Barbara (Valerie Kuan and Barbara Herr Harthorn),
- the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars,
- Simon Fraser University,
- Luinda Bleackley,
- Teresa McDowell,
- Zoey Ryan,
- Susan Baxter,
- Helen Dewar,
- Debora Gordon, and
- Doug Setter
all of whose financial support helped me get to the conference. I am deeply grateful.
I want to thank the organizers for a sumptuous conference not only in content but also in execution. They even managed to cater most of our meals, which made life ever so much easier. In particular, I want to thank Marcia Clifford and Evelien Rietberg of the local organizing committee for their patience and help as I fumbled about on my arrival.
Part 2: Yet again, I discover information about Canadian nanotechnology efforts through European sources.
ETA Nov. 1, 2012: I made a minor grammatical correction in the section about Chris Groves’ talk and I should mention that I never did quite grasp the relationship of ‘care’ to the concepts he presented.