A nod of approval from Nature Magazine

Last week, Nature Magazine‘s Daniel Sarewitz, wrote this about a science policy initiative SciCheer helped to inspire:

“More and earlier public involvement is required to steer powerful new technologies wisely….Relative to the cost of research and development, increasing this capacity would be cheap. It could be paid for by a small tithe on the federal research budget, and coordinated by one or more loose networks of non-governmental groups, research universities, and government laboratories (for example, see www.ecastnetwork.org). New social networking technologies could permit such discussions on scales from local to international, in venues ranging from science museums and research laboratories to presidential commissions and nationwide virtual conferences. This is the momentum of democracy. In the long run, it will also be the best thing for science.”

His column,  “Not by experts alone” boldly and clearly states the case for participatory technology assessment. Readers of Science Cheerleader know this is something of an obsession of mine. This passion led to the incarnation of ECAST (which has been cited or endorsed by the White House, Nature Magazine, and dozens of other academic, professional, and mainstream publications): Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology. This network of universities, science centers, and policy makers, anchored by the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., will play ring-leader to several forthcoming pilot projects designed to integrate public participation into critical discussions of emerging technologies (synthetic biology to name one).

Why is this important? I’ll turn the mic back to Sarewitz:

We are an innovating species, engaged in a balancing act. In the decades after the Second World War, innovation fuelled an unprecedented era of wealth creation while keeping us on the brink of nuclear annihilation. The green revolution fed billions while poisoning soil and water and destroying agrarian cultures. Today, synthetic biology and geoengineering portend a future in which managing socio-technical complexity will be every bit as challenging, if not more so. Is there a better way forward?

Maybe — if we act fast, embrace our ignorance, and keep experts from taking over.

Once a complex technology is widely used — like the automobile or the coal-fired power plant — restricting, reorienting or replacing it becomes incredibly difficult. So the key to making better choices is to start early, when uncertainty about a technology’s future is high, by maximizing the diversity of perspectives and interests involved in the discussion.

The goal is not to convince the hoi polloi that they have nothing to fear, but to improve social outcomes of emerging technologies. Scientists may be inclined to ignore or dismiss the efforts of non-experts to influence complex technical discussions — for example, in discounting the views of English sheep farmers during the response to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster, or belittling the critiques of AIDS patients in early efforts to develop treatments. But when it comes to the future of an emerging technology, no one (or everyone) is an expert.

If you’d like to learn more or get involved, simply go to the  (beta) ECAST website and  sign up.  We’ll send you news and invitations as they become available.

Next up in the realm of science policy and public participation….The U.S. Government Accountability Office just made public one if its reports. I spoke with GAO’s Chief Scientist, Tim Persons, about this report and its implications. Stay tuned for more on that interview.