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Small Tech in a Small Nation

Chris Groves

Have we learned yet what it means to live in a technological society? For well over a
century, our everyday lives have become increasingly suffused by advanced
technologies, from telecommunications and industrial chemistry through information
technology to the products of the life sciences — and now, nanotechnology. Our
relationships with the non-human world and with other people have been transformed.
Communications technologies bring the distant close to us, and consumer electronics
transport those closest to us far away. Engineered chemicals transform the materials
which surround us, eradicate unseen dirt, kill unwanted unicellular creatures, even (so
we’re told) keep us young. We have gained the ability to store unimaginable amounts
of information, and extend our collective capacity to remember — so long as the
fragile digital media we employ endure.

A technological society is one which surrounds its members with tools and devices
whose inner workings and potential for creating unintended consequences remain
mysterious — in effect, they’re so many black boxes. Since the 1960s, and the
revelations about DDT and Thalidomide, it has been apparent that the benefits and
costs of technologies are spread unequally across the world and between generations.
There have been protests against GM foods in developing countries, sparked by
concerns that the common heritage of farmers would be expropriated and turned into
a source of private profit by transnational corporations. Nuclear power brings
electricity to the homes of citizens of industrialised societies while successive
generations in countries like Niger and Namibia suffer the consequences of working
in, and living near, uranium mines. Living in a technological society is not just a
matter of living amidst all the black boxes; it is also a matter of understanding that
they connect to and modulate inequalities of power.

For nearly twenty years, nanotechnology has been hailed as likely to trigger nothing
less than a second industrial revolution. The ability to engineer matter at the scale of
nanometres, creating structures smaller than viruses and proteins, equal in size to
small molecules, would mean that we could (to use imagery employed in a brochure
issued by the US government back in 1999) “build the world atom by atom”. New
medical devices, smart materials, drugs, even interfaces that would meld organic life
and information technology, thus realising science fiction dreams of cyborgs — all
would be made possible. Commentators have embraced this vision enthusiastically,
even those who disagree with writers like K. Eric Drexler and Ray Kurzweil about the
feasibility of micro-scale, artificially intelligent robots based on nanotechnology (like
the “nanites” featured in I, Robot or the remade The Day the Earth Stood Still).
When such a future begins to look imminent, discussions of the effects on society of
the new technologies ensue. Questions arise as to the optimum balance between
benefits and risks, but also about how far the institutions that develop and manage
technologies can be trusted to safeguard against hazards. Although public awareness
of nanotechnology remains comparatively low, such questions are now to be
expected, just as was the case with GM technology. In January 2010 the House of
Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology produced a report that noted a
“regrettable” level of secrecy in the food industry around the current uses of
nanotechnology. They accompanied this observation with comments on how much
remains unknown about the potential of nano-engineered substances used in food
applications for harming human health and the environment. Yet the numbers of
“nano-enabled” consumer products continue to increase: in the USA, the Woodrow
Wilson Institute’s online databases include, at the time of writing, over 1000
consumer products from over 20 countries1. The philosopher Langdon Winner has
pointed out that technologies are a form of tacit legislation that can transform whole
societies. If this is the case, the relationship between those on the receiving end — the
citizens of nominally democratic nation states — and those who drive and manage the
commercial exploitation of new technologies perhaps needs more scrutiny.
It is evident that those behind the drive to commercialisation are convinced more
technological innovation — of whatever kind — is good for us. And here in Wales,
devolution may have made its contribution. In Wales, as in the UK, the 1970s, ‘80s
and ‘90s saw a general decline of traditional manufacturing industries, as global
corporations relocated production capacity to cheaper countries. Industry and
governments alike began to consider science and technology important. Companies
had of course long seen science and technology as a source of improvements to
production processes, and thus a source of profit. Governments now began to see
support for technological innovation as a way of making their nations more attractive
to inward investment. Consequently, the social value of science and technology was
increasingly described in the more nebulous language of banking. Investment in
technological innovation produced global “competitiveness”, or “flexibility” —
qualities which would help companies and whole nations to deal with the
uncertainties of a global economy, and which would trickle down (as prosperity was
once supposed to do). Investments in a “knowledge economy” would create a
“knowledge society”.

Talk of “knowledge economies” has revived again recently, following the financial
crisis. It has, however, long been a popular theme for officials from small countries
afflicted by a failing manufacturing base. Business parks in locations as far apart as
Wrexham and Neath Port Talbot attract biotechnology companies. Companies
working in nanotechnology, often linked closely with Welsh universities, have joined
them over the last decade. Efforts to build up coalitions of academia and business
within Wales have been the focus of significant efforts both from International
Business Wales and from the Welsh Assembly Government, with WAG keen to
spread the story that emerging technologies will be a source both of wealth and that
global elixir, competitiveness, in the future.

In January 2007, the Assembly Government released a consultation document, A


Science Policy for Wales?, the question mark indicating, as Rhodri Morgan noted at
the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ Science Conference in October 2006, that the need for
a technology policy in a small country where this area did not fall under devolved
competences remained to be demonstrated. Nonetheless, he sought to demonstrate just
this, suggesting that the economic health of a small nation depends on the cultivation
of its strengths, and the strengths of twenty-first-century Wales would lie in its
relationship with science. “Wales must have a knowledge economy” Morgan stated,
noting that Wales would certainly not be able to “compete in a globalising economy
on low wage and production costs” alone. Among the examples highlighted of the
1
http://www.nanotechproject.org/inventories/
emerging technologies crucial in Wales were the life sciences (including the Wales
Gene Park) and nanotechnology (which continues to grow its presence, now including
several Cardiff University-industry partnerships and spin-out companies, Swansea
University’s Centre for NanoHealth, and strategic all-Wales coalitions like XGEN
and Technium).
Policy priorities would be to develop the scientific knowledge necessary for future
innovation and to bring in overseas companies looking for R&D partners, but also to
help small companies get products to market. Morgan remarked that, in search of
competitiveness, “we have to improve the speed of commercialisation of scientific
discovery in our Higher Education and other public sector institutions”, taking other
small country knowledge economies — like Finland, home of Nokia — as a model.
High technology may increasingly be seen as another expression of Adam Smith’s
invisible hand, bringing private interests and public ones into harmony. But things are
not so simple, as Morgan’s comments indicate. The amount of resources that
emerging technologies require mean that governments — even small ones — have to
play a significant role in supporting public and private research and development. The
late John Ziman, physicist and philosopher of science, wrote that in recent decades
there had been a gradual erasure of the old distinction between scientific research
done for the sake of extending knowledge, and for technological application.2 For
Ziman, the post-World War II period saw an increasingly intimate relationship
between political institutions, private business, and academic scientific research. New
technologies were assessed as being of long-term strategic importance for government
and business alike. The result was that more was asked of science. A new “social
contract” arose, in which science was given generous funding in return for
innovations that were of significant “social value” and which would mobilise longer-
term economic growth. Gradually, scientists became used to being part of strategic
coalitions of private and public institutions. Even basic research within universities
was increasingly shaped by social priorities, communicated through government
departments, technology strategy committees, and funding councils.
One positive conclusion to draw from this might be that science has become, at least
in theory, more accountable for what it does than ever before. But to whom? Who has
an opportunity to exert influence on debates over what the social value of emerging
technologies might be? As I suggested earlier, technologies often also have a way of
reflecting and intensifying existing inequalities of power. Which private interests, for
example, have a say in deciding what benefits are worth seeking? And does allowing
— and even supporting — such interests always benefit the public good?
The wholesale strategic pursuit of new technologies on the basis of their promised
benefits is based on decisions — sometimes explicit, sometimes not — about what
kinds of uncertainties — perhaps including serious risks — we should collectively
bear. The recent history of nanotechnology gives us excellent examples of how
strategic science and technology is inseparable from grappling with uncertainty, and
of how this creates serious problems of accountability.
The ethical implications of some possible radical nanotechnological futures — such
as human cognitive enhancement and increased longevity — have been widely
debated in academia and in the scientific press. However, we do not have to go
beyond current nanotechnology and its likely near-future development, to obtain
much food for thought. The current uses of nanotechnology in medicines, cosmetics
and foods have not brought about anything like a new industrial revolution.
2
Ziman, J. M. 2000. Real science: what it is, and what it means. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Nonetheless, the drive to turn what innovations have been achieved into marketable
products should perhaps focus our attention on what is known and, in particular, not
known about nano-engineered materials and how they may interact with the human
body and the environment. In 2008, the Royal Commission on Environmental
Pollution (RCEP) produced a report which noted that “currently it is extremely
difficult to evaluate how safe or how dangerous some nanomaterials are because of
our complete ignorance about so many aspects of their fate and toxicology.”3 The
present generation of nano-engineered materials are so valued largely because of their
enhanced or novel properties, when compared to “bulk” versions of the same material.
But these properties also make possible all kinds of unforeseen interactions with the
different environments into which nanomaterials may be introduced during their
lifecycle. How different nano-materials may, thanks to their small size, pass through
human bodies — through the digestive system, into cells, or across the blood-brain
barrier — promises, for example, new methods of delivering drugs to cancer sites. But
the properties that may make new treatments possible may lead to new hazards too,
unless the interactions between nanomaterials and the body’s various systems can be
reliably modelled and predicted.
If the inside of the body have the potential to expose us to complex nano-risks, then
the behaviour of nanomaterials in ecosystems is a further source of concern: how they
will affect key aquatic species and soil microbes, where they may end up, and whether
they can accumulate and perhaps be passed on through the food chain, are all
questions which remain to be answered.
It is impossible to establish in any general way what the hazards associated with
nanotechnology might be, due to the diversity of applications and materials being
developed. Nor is there likely to be some general way to assess the hazards associated
with nano-forms of a given element, such as a carbon nanotube, nano-silver, or zinc
oxide. Many uses of nanomaterials most likely pose little risk: used within matrices
like the materials from which car body shells are made, for example, there is no
chance of them being freely released (at least until the product reaches the end of its
useful life and is disposed of). However, some current and likely near future use in
other forms — such as in cosmetics, functional foods, packaging and medical
applications — are cause for more concern.
In the USA, the use of nano-silver — prized for its enhanced antimicrobial properties
— in consumer goods from socks to washing machines to dummies, baby cups and
toothpastes was the subject of much discussion in 2008-09. Would the increased
antimicrobial toxicity of nano-silver have detrimental effects on aquatic ecosystems,
once it became widely used? And was it worth living with this uncertainty for the
sake of socks that stayed odour-free for ten days?
We might therefore want to question one of the key assumptions which underlie the
new social contract that is implicit within both Ziman’s “strategic science” and Rhodri
Morgan’s remarks about a technology policy for Wales — that making it as easy as
possible to get strategically important technologies from the R&D stage onto the
market is good in itself. How acceptable is it to impose risks — or rather
unquantifiable uncertainties — through the market, in the pursuit of goals which
haven’t been subjected to any significant debate? Organisations such as Which? have
already articulated consumer concerns about issues such as labelling: there is no legal
requirement, at present, to provide information about whether a particular product

3
Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 2008. Novel materials in the
environment: the case of nanotechnology. Norwich: The Stationery Office.
contains nano-materials, and if so, in what form.4 But concerns about whether or not
risks exist are only the beginning. Social science research (of the kind that led to the
Demos publication Governing at the Nanoscale5 in 2006) has shown that, when
members of the public are given the opportunity as part of “citizens’ juries” or similar
exercises to find out more about nanotechnology, certain worries recur, and “are there
any risks?” is not the foremost of these. Rather, people are concerned about whether
or not regulators and industry can be trusted to be transparent about what still needs to
be known before we can determine whether any risks do definitely exist. They are
sceptical as to whether the institutions can be trusted to manage hazards that do
emerge, and they doubt whether the development of these technologies will address
deep social needs, rather than simply “follow the money”, resulting in a plethora of
slightly different brands of nano-socks and toothpastes.
From this research, we might conclude that people have, to some extent, learnt what it
means to live in a technological society, recognising that the widespread use of high
technology turns new innovations and those who develop and commercialise them
into, pace Shelley, the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”. The institutions of
government are, however, perhaps lagging behind. Between 2005 and 2007 the UK
government invested a significant amount of money in a series of exercises to assess
what role “public engagement” could have in helping shape the future of
nanotechnology.6 These exercises, though undoubtedly valuable — particularly for
those who participated — suffered from a range of difficulties. Not much thought was
given to how public deliberation about the future of nanotechnology could feed into
either public policy or research and development, and also lacking was any explicit
vision of what engagement should aim to achieve. It is therefore particularly
disappointing that the UK Government’s recent nanotechnology strategy, Small
Technologies, Great Opportunities (published in March), made scarcely any mention
of public engagement.
The exercises also suffered from a lack of opportunities for industry to participate. If
the social contract between business, science and wider society is to be rebalanced,
then whether businesses are prepared to fully engage with the public is a serious
concern. Research done here at Cardiff University by BRASS on the attitudes of UK
nanotechnology companies (including several based in Wales) to corporate social
responsibility revealed several significant obstacles. Typically, companies view public
attitudes to new technologies as being determined by how far tangible consumer
benefits are expected, even if there is uncertainty about risks. Several interviewees
with whom we spoke used the example of the uptake of mobile phones to illustrate
this point, noting that next to marketing, communicating directly with the public came
a poor second in influencing attitudes. The continuing scepticism on the part of the
public as to the wisdom of developing GM food, however, may offer a counter-
example, one in which the social science findings I referred to above are borne out:
certain technologies, by their nature, lead people to doubt how reliable existing
private and public institutions might be at handling them responsibly.
If smaller countries like Wales are to play a role in developing emerging technologies,
then the politics of uncertainty that surround these technologies require citizens to be
technological citizens. And if we need technological citizens, then we need
institutions to support them — to help organise public deliberation to identify social
problems and priorities which may differ significantly from those identified by
4
Which? 2008. Small Wonder? Nanotechnology and cosmetics. London: Which?
5
http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/governingatthenanoscale
6
E.g. http://www.nanojury.org.uk.
industry and by technology strategists in government. These institutions will need to
make wide and deep public engagement an integral part of technological innovation.
They could draw on existing centres of lifelong learning, adult education, and the
cultural resources available through institutions like arts centres, the University of the
Third Age, and fora for discussion like science and philosophy cafes.7 They can build
on the role of the internet in providing access to information and discussion spaces, an
excellent nanotechnology-related example of which is the Responsible Nanoforum’s
Nano and Me website.8
Back in October, the UK business secretary, Peter Mandelson, stated that the country
needs “less financial engineering and more real engineering”. Whoever prevails in the
upcoming Westminster general election, the undoubted popular appeal of calls to go
back to “making stuff” may well encourage Assembly and Westminster politicians
alike to continue emphasising the social benefits of strategic science, and of helping
companies rush new discoveries to market. I have suggested, however, that there are
serious questions to be asked collectively, before we affirm that the pursuit of the
public good equals a knowledge economy plus a light regulatory touch. Who will
ultimately benefit from emerging technologies, and who may have to bear the risks,
should any emerge? And how should our unacknowledged legislators be held
accountable for the futures they are helping create?

7
See, for example, www.sciencecafewales.org/, and www.philosophycafe.org.uk
(of which the author is an organiser).
8
See http://www.nanoandme.org/.