THE LOKA INSTITUTE

  For Science and Technology of,  by & for the People

 

Loka's Advocacy
For Public Participation
In Federal Nanotechnology Policymaking

 

Loka advocates for greater public participation in the design and use of nanotechnologies, as an emerging area with potentially profound effects on everyone.

We played a catalytic role in persuading Congress in 2003 to include provisions requiring an unprecedented level of public participation in technology policymaking in the first law authorizing federal nanotech research and development programs.

Since then, we've sponsored and participated in a wide range of other actions — including public-interest coalitions, panels, seminars, Congressional advocacy, and publications — to promote the voices of everyday citizens, not just entrepreneurs and policy wonks, in policymaking for science and technology. Our goal: To advance a more democratic politics of technology. Below are some highlights from our work related to nanotechnologies.


 

Mandating "Public Input" in Policymaking

Testimony from Loka President Langdon Winner to the House Science Committee originally highlighted the wisdom of public input to the decisionmaking process for federal nanotechnology policy. That sparked Congressional interest in the idea.

Loka then developed and coordinated a campaign to transform the idea to reality, receiving vital support from our partner in the effort, the International Center for Technology Assessment. We mobilized a broad coalition of community activists, academics, and university, philanthropic, and business leaders to sign a letter to key members of Congress and White House officials urging that specific provisions be included in the pending legislation that would require public participation. We also worked with key staffers in the House and Senate, overcoming initial White House opposition.

The final 2003 law required “public input and outreach to be integrated in to the [federal nanotechnology R&D] Program by the convening of regular and ongoing public discussions, through mechanisms such as citizens' panels, consensus conferences, and educational events.”

This represented an unprecedented advance in U.S. technology policymaking. Never before had such a clear mandate been established in law for ordinary Americans to participate in policymaking for a major new technology. Unfortunately, federal policymakers since have mainly focused on the law's requirement for "outreach" to the public — shortchanging and often ignoring their mandate from Congress to also provide ways for direct input from the public into decisionmaking processes.


 

Loka's Community Workshop: "Nanotechnology: Getting the Public Involved in Decision-Making"

Loka organized a workshop hosted by Howard University in 2004 for a group of community activists from around the country to make recommendations for implementing the new mandate for public participation. Loka also asked the group to serve as its Community Advisory Group on Federal Nanotechnology Policy.

In a kind of simplified consensus conference, the group of grassroots experts heard brief presentations from others with expertise in nanotechnology or the Washington policy scene and engaged in extended conversations with them. In their deliberations, the community advisers discussed major social, environmental, and ethical issues related to nanotechnologies. They agreed on a set of recommendations for making sure the 2003 requirement for public involvement was fully and fairly implemented. They were especially concerned about ways in which everyday citizens could become aware of, and engaged in, policymaking as soon as possible, given how rapidly nanotechnologies are being commercialized.

One key recommendation:
 
The federal government should establish and adequately fund a program as quickly as possible for an ongoing series of national citizen panels, local citizen panels, and other community forums on nanotechnology issues.

These should be designed to allow participants to inform themselves about nanotechnology issues, to take part in in-depth and face-to-face discussions and deliberations with other members of their communities on the particular issues related to nanotechnology that they themselves identify as their top interests and concerns, and to communicate their conclusions and concerns to the media, the general public, and local, state, and federal officials.

The group's other recommendations are available here.


 

Speaking Out

The Loka community is a leading voice for the urgency of elevating the general public's role in decisionmaking for emerging technologies like nanotechnology. Examples include Loka Board Chair Rick Worthington's analysis of the political economy of participation in nanotechnology policy, which he presented to an international conference of community researchers and science policy activists in 2005.

Another example — we went public with our disappointment about the lack of attention to public and worker participation in the nano risk framework proposed by DuPont and Environmental Defense. Loka was consulted by Environmental Defense during the drafting process. And we had proposed innovative ways at that time to incorporate such participation. So we were especially concerned about the relatively slight attention in the framework to the urgency of directly involving the general public and workers — whose livelihoods and safety are most at stake — in assessing and reducing nano risks.


 

Partnering for Joint Principles in the Public Interest

Loka, with the help of our Community Advisory Group, especially members Debony Hart, Darshell Silva, Greg Tanaka, and Lea Zeldin, has been active in a coalition of public-interest, popular-education, and labor groups to bring participatory, environmental, and social concerns into global policy discussions about nanotech. The coalition developed Joint Principles for Oversight of Nanomaterials and Nanotechnologies. More than 40 organizations worldwide — ranging from relatively small organizations like Accion Ecologica in Ecuador to the AFL-CIO and Friends of the Earth — signed the principles.

Afterwards, we issued a special Loka Alert outlining our take on the politics of nanotechnology — including the case for a pause in commercializing nanotechnologies.

The Joint Principles were first released in 2007. But they continue to serve as vital guidance for protecting the public interest.


 

Petitioning the EPA to Regulate Nanosilver in Consumer Products

Loka joined several other organizations in a legal petition in 2008 demanding that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulate consumer products using nanoscale versions of silver.  Nanosilver is the most common commercialized nanoproduct, and is used to kill micro-organisms and bacteria. That's raised concerns, backed by some early scientific evidence, about the potential for harm to human health and the environment, including the effects of nanosilver particles circulating through ecosystems.  


 

Partnering for Model Federal Legislation

We also worked with several organizations in drafting Model Legislation and a letter to spell out the kind of federal oversight of nanotechnology research and development needed to protect the public interest. A broad array of consumer, labor, and environmental groups has criticized the federal National Nanotechnology Initiative for its underfunding of environmental health and safety (EHS) research. Loka and a few other organizations have added concerns about other social and ethical dimensions as well, especially the need for far more public input into the program. We remain strongly committed to working in partnership with other public-interest groups in opposing the consensus in official Washington — Democratic and Republican — that federal policies should focus on speeding up the commercialization of nanotechnologies and largely ignore research and other evidence of the likely negative consequences of doing so.


 

Links to Articles Referenced Above: