Ask the experts: Risk put in perspective

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July 28, 2005 — Before 2001, most communication about nanotechnology occurred among scientists and government officials during technical conferences. Nano now has moved into the public domain, often hyped as either a technological savior or demon. Allowing an informed public to assess its benefits and risks likely will involve scientists, educators and other communicators. Small Times’ Candace Stuart asked three professionals to share their views on effective communication strategies.

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Q: What is the most important component in any risk communication?

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BERUBE: When you communicate to lay audiences, there is a bundle of variables that have been categorized under the word “outrage.” These variables are biases and are heavily mediated. Unfortunately, the models we have are deficient for two primary reasons. First, the media has changed considerably since the models were built. Second, the models were not intended for emerging technologies without a history.

IDEN: Communication must be clear, transparent and comprehensible to all parties. The nanosciences are considered to be a key technology of the 21st century. Appropriate research into safety is therefore crucial to their dynamic and sustainable development.

REJESKI: To begin, an honest and thorough assessment of the risks based on solid, independent research about health, safety, and environmental impacts. There is an immediate need to address the valid questions raised about the adequacy of government research on the risks related to nanotechnology. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies was created to help work with government, industry, and other stakeholders to identify research needs around existing and, importantly, emerging risks.

Q: Does nanotechnology pose any unusual challenges for communicators? If so, what are they?

BERUBE: While there are many, here are the top three. First, the word “nanotechnology” is confounding and carries a peculiar valence because it is bundled with technology in general, with Drexlerian molecular manufacturing, with popular culture hyperbole, etc.

Second, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is a commercial initiative. Its scientific character, while important, is secondary or incidental. As such, the window for effective communication is rapidly closing, leaving public relations types of communication strategies, like fear and perception management, the only viable models. Third, it shares characteristics with all newly emerging technologies: There is a high degree of uncertainty about interactions, implications and effects.

IDEN: A major challenge for a communicator is the complexity of the subject due to its wide-ranging profile. Opportunities and risks must be communicated in equal measure, while one must also cut through the hype.

REJESKI: First, nanotechnology is not a technology per se, but a way of making things. This needs to be clearly communicated along with its implications. Second, many of the potential benefits and risks from nanotechnology will arise from behaviors at a quantum level. Such behaviors are far less intuitive than those governed by classical physics, and far more difficult to understand and communicate. Third, as the nano and bio worlds converge, complexity increases again, raising further barriers to public understanding.

Q: Who should be involved in the discussion and why?

BERUBE: The popular answer is stakeholders. Unfortunately, defining who they are is nearly impossible. Definitions usually include everyone and even then you will find someone who feels left out.

IDEN: Industry, research, politicians and NGOs (non-governmental organizations), because they are all stakeholders.

REJESKI: So far the discussions can be characterized as “insider” conversations, largely involving scientists and funders in government and industry. The dynamics of this conversation are in flux. The number of people and groups that will focus on nanotechnology over the next few years will grow rapidly, encompassing more diverse players acting at global, national, state, and local levels.

Q: Is it necessary to present technical issues to the public?

BERUBE: Yes and no. Yes, the technical information must be accessible. Transparency is a necessary component of a risk communication message to remove suspicions. The message itself does not need to include technical material. There are at least two good reasons. First, I have been researching a phenomenon I call “risk fatigue.” Put simply, the public has received too many risk messages and is unable to discern meaning from the proliferation. Second, lay audiences decide issues like toxicology intuitively.

IDEN: Yes, because knowledge increases acceptance and prevents fear. Communication should be targeted at all levels: schools, electronic and printed media, conferences, and exhibitions.

REJESKI: Generally, most people have better things to do with their lives than worry or think about technology. They are more than willing to leave the worrying to other people and organizations, provided they can trust them.

And here is the rub. Polls tell us that trust in government is low and trust in industry is worse. Ditto for the media. Given this situation, I believe that there will be a very little public tolerance of an accident or what might be perceived as a mistake by government regulatory agencies responsible for managing risks related to nanotechnology.

Q: Is it important to openly acknowledge nanotechnology’s “unknowns”?

BERUBE: That depends on what is meant by the word “important.” For industry, while fessing up that there are many unknowns might help in some litigation, it won’t help in most product liability suits. In general, lay audiences do not respond well to uncertainty and unknowns. It is viewed as perception/fear management babble.

IDEN: Yes. As we still have no complete knowledge of all possible effects, our best means of protection is, for the time being, minimization of exposure potentials. This year BASF joined 23 partners from seven European Union countries in a project aimed at developing methods for the safe use of nanoparticles, Nanosafe2. The goal is to establish processes to detect, track and characterize nanoparticles. Such methods are a prerequisite for determining any possible risks to man or the environment.

REJESKI: Most people do not expect to live in a “zero risk” world of perfect certainty. What will trigger public pushback on nanotechnology is not risk or uncertainty per se but attempts by industry or government to deny the existence of risks or gloss over uncertainties with technocratic jargon.

Q: What are the best methods for allaying public fear during a lengthy scientific inquiry process?

BERUBE: First, don’t let it get to fear, and that would require as much transparency as possible and a concerted effort to engage the media. Second, educate the population about the scientific process. An initiative for K-12 might involve introducing students to the scientific process as a way to uncover information independent of mathematical formulae and technical jargon.

IDEN: An ongoing, open dialogue is needed to allay public fears. The results from Nanosafe2, for instance, will be made available worldwide.

REJESKI: There is a need for early and continuous engagement. Timing is critical because late engagement by governments can appear disingenuous, especially after technological trajectories and funding have already been set. It is important that uncertainties are discussed rather than disguised, and that government and industry articulate a clear plan to address the uncertainties.

Q: Who has taken the lead in efforts to communicate with the public?

BERUBE: No one is in the lead. Some complain that popular culture has the lead with fictionalized scenarios of gloom and doom. Others worry that the news media might be orchestrating public perception but there is little evidence to bear this out.

Outreach from labs and government centers has not produced a substantial increase in understanding. Government publications have been mostly self-congratulatory and haven’t targeted the public. Colleges and universities might be making the most inroads but the process of educating the next generation will take time and nanotechnology may crest before they enter the ranks of stakeholders.

IDEN: BASF has taken on an active role within the chemical industry.

REJESKI: Here we need to differentiate between communication and engagement. Most countries with nanotech initiatives have some outreach or education efforts designed to communicate information on nanotech’s benefits and risks. Under the NNI, the federal government will spend about $35 million in 2006 on “education,” very broadly defined.

However, few countries are involved in public engagement, which involves a commitment to dialogue, not monologue, as well as a willingness to fully understand and potentially integrate public concerns into policy. Public engagement will become more critical as nanotechnology advances.

Q: How effective have they been?

BERUBE: Everyone is receiving a failing grade. While there are isolated experiments, there has been no concerted effort by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and NNI functionaries to engage the public. There have been small (federal) awards, but there has been little coordination beyond personal ties.

IDEN: We have made a start, and I believe that nanotechnology will remain one of the most important issues in communication in the coming years. Currently, there are not enough scientific data on how certain nanoparticles behave inside the body, so Nanosafe2 will play an important role in this regard.

REJESKI: We need public engagement around nanotechnology rather than a technocratic monologue on risk. If that is the case, then the most effective players will be those who already have the skills to engage citizens and now apply those skills to nanotechnology.

Certainly, ETC Group (an activist group) has achieved broad media impact on nanotech with a small amount of resources. This should tell us that money is not as important as timing, strategy, an understanding of public fears and concerns, and a sense of how to match message to medium. That’s something most PR firms know well, but governments forget, or never learned. It is important to remember that engagement is a contact sport, not an intellectual exercise.


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