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Loka Alert 10:1 (June 17, 2003)



Dear Friends and Colleagues,

If you believe we urgently need more citizen participation in federal  technology policy, this is the time to let your Senators know!

Thursday morning, June 19th, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee intends to finish writing up S. 189, a bill to coordinate federal nanotechnology research and development across several agencies. The Senate Committee has a rare opportunity to provide strong legislative authority for Citizen Panels a key innovation for public participation in science and technology policymaking.

The House has already passed its own nanotech bill, H.R. 766, which includes a historic provision that would allow ordinary citizens to take part in policy deliberations early on in the development of a major new technology. It requires public input and outreach to the public in federal policymaking for nanotechnology -- an area expected to have dramatic impact on us all through "the convening of regular and ongoing public discussions." The House bill also specifies that one method for achieving this public input would be Citizen Panels -- or Consensus Conferences, as they are also called. These panels of ordinary Americans would review the social, environmental, and ethical impacts of nanotechnology and advise the government on them.

Now the Senate Committee is considering whether to endorse or ignore this House move towards democracy. Your voice could have a significant influence on the outcome -- please call or fax your 
Senators before Thursday morning to share your views on the nanotechnology measures and whether you believe that Congress should not just mention citizen panels, but provide a strong mandate for them. Call the main Congressional switchboard -- 202-224-3121 -- and ask for your Senators' office numbers. (Or visit http://www.congress.org  and enter your zip code to retrieve contact information for your Senators and Representative.)

Do you live in one of the following states? If so, you have at least one Senator who is actually on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has the best chance to add citizen panels to the bill. So your phone calls or faxes -- before Thursday, if possible -- are even more important:

  • ALASKA (Sen. Ted Stevens)
  • ARIZONA (Committee Chair John McCain)
  • CALIFORNIA (Sen. Barbara Boxer)
  • FLORIDA (Sen. Bill Nelson)
  • HAWAII (Sen. Daniel K. Inouye)
  • ILLINOIS (Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald)
  • KANSAS (Sen. Sam Brownback)
  • LOUISIANA (Sen. John B. Breaux)
  • MAINE (Sen. Olympia Snowe)
  • MASSACHUSETTS (Sen. John F. Kerry)
  • MISSISSIPPI (Sen. Trent Lott)
  • MONTANA (Sen. Conrad Burns)
  • NEW HAMPSHIRE (Sen. John Sununu)
  • NEW JERSEY (Sen. Frank Lautenberg)
  • NEVADA (Sen. John Ensign)
  • NORTH DAKOTA (Sen. Byron L. Dorgan)
  • OREGON (Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Gordon Smith)
  • SOUTH CAROLINA (Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, the Committee's Ranking Democrat)
  • TEXAS (Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson)
  • VIRGINIA (Sen. George Allen)
  • WASHINGTON (Sen. Maria Cantwell) and 
  • WEST VIRGINIA (Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV).

Citizen panels involve small groups of ordinary citizens assembled to examine important societal issues about research and technology. These citizens are selected in much the same way that we now choose juries in cases of law -- but with greater commitment to represent diverse experiences. The panels study and discuss relevant documents, develop an agenda of major public issues to address, hear expert testimony from those doing the research, listen to arguments about technical applications and consequences presented by various sides, deliberate on their findings, and write reports based on consensus items developed among the panelists.

This gives policy-makers and everyone else a much better sense of where the common ground lies among citizens who do not have a direct political or economic stake in the issue under consideration -- i.e., the majority of the population. Citizen panels are good government, good for business, and good for America's families and communities.

Nanotechnology supporters are promising enormous benefits from developments in this new field, others are raising serious concerns, and this major new technology is expected to have profound social, health, environmental, financial, and ethical consequences for everyone. So this is an excellent time to contact your representatives in Congress. Make sure to refer to Senate bill S. 189 or House bill H.R. 766. Urge them to support a mandate for citizen panels in the legislation, which may spur a Senate floor discussion on public participation in technology policy. Stress the need for strong provisions in the bill to ensure careful consideration and ongoing attention to the potential social, environmental, and ethical consequences of nanotechnology.

A full Senate vote could follow soon after the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation marks up the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act -- visit 
http://thomas.loc.gov  and search for "S. 189" to see the bill.

The House has already passed the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003, authorizing $2.36 billion over three years (to see the bill as passed by the House and referred to the Senate, visit http://thomas.loc.gov  and search for "H.R. 766.RFS").

Spending could be much lower than this ceiling after the appropriations process; however, even this amount does not include nanotech spending by the Defense Department. In an April 9 hearing 
dedicated to the Societal Implications of Nanotechnology, the House Committee on Science heard from Langdon Winner, professor of political science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and president of the Loka Institute. He called for expanded public deliberations through means such as citizen panels. Since this hearing, House leaders have expressed greater interest in predicting and sorting out the potential social impacts of nanotechnology, hoping to prevent disasters and also to avoid a repeat of the public backlash against genetically modified foods and other recently introduced technologies.

Initially, there were only vague references to public outreach in the House bill. But Langdon Winner's testimony sparked interest in the idea of a mechanism like citizen panels. And the Loka Institute and the International Center for Technology Assessment (http://www.icta.org) generated phone calls and visits to educate key Congressional staffers on this rare opportunity to initiate citizen panels early in the development of a major new technology.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) embraced the idea of citizen panels and proposed an amendment that would require the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office to organize at least one citizen panel every 18 months, and that specifically provided for funding of these panels. Ultimately, House Republicans preferred to mention citizen panels and consensus conferences as possible forms of regular and ongoing public discussions for public input without mandating them, and this compromise found its way into the final House bill.

Besides calling your own Senators, key members of the Senate Commerce Committee especially Sen. McCain, who chairs the committee; Sen. Wyden, who introduced S. 189; and Sen. Hollings, the senior Democrat -- could benefit from hearing your feelings on this extraordinary opportunity to democratize U.S. science and technology policymaking by involving ordinary citizens in the process. If the Senate includes even stronger language regarding public participation than is now in the House version, ordinary citizens are likely to end up with a voice in nanotech policy.

Thank you for your help in these efforts.

Evan Crutcher, Richard E. Sclove Fellow of the Loka Institute
Colleen Cordes, Member of Loka's Board of Trustees

For more information:

Contacting your Senators and Representative http://www.congress.org
(enter your zip code for contact information)

House Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 
http://thomas.loc.gov -- (search for "H.R. 766.RFS")

Senate 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act 
http://thomas.loc.gov  -- (search for "S. 189")

Predictions of potential benefits 

Predictions of potential negative consequences

April 9 hearing on the Societal Impacts of Nanotechnology 

Langdon Winner's April 9 testimony 

International Center for Technology Assessment

"Town Meetings on Technology", an article by Richard E. Sclove on citizen panels, or consensus conferences, as they are also called. 

National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office

House Committee on Science

Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology 

Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation 

May 1 hearing on nanotechnology 

Membership and phone numbers of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation 

ADDRESS AND CONTACT INFORMATION FOR THE LOKA INSTITUTE: Suite 302, 660 Pennsylvania Avenue, S.E., Washington, D.C. 20003, USA E-mail Loka@Loka.org, Web http://www.loka.org Tel. +1-202-547-9359 or 1-301-585-9398; Fax: 1-202-547-9429.

Loka works worldwide to make research, science and technology more democratically responsive. This is one in an occasional series on the democratic politics of research, science, and technology issued free of charge by the nonprofit Loka Institute. To be added to the Loka Alert E-mail list, or to reply to this post, please send a message to Loka@Loka.org. To be removed from the list, send an E-mail with no subject or message text to loka-alert-unsubscribe@egroups.com. (If that fails, just notify us at Loka@Loka.org.) IF YOU ENJOY LOKA ALERTS, PLEASE INVITE INTERESTED FRIENDS & COLLEAGUES TO SUBSCRIBE TOO. Thanks!


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This page last modified: October 14, 2004 The Loka Institute