This month, UW–Madison’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center and the Citizens' Coalition on Nanotechnology in Madison, WI co-sponsored the first Nano Café.
"The Nano Café provides a casual atmosphere in which people who don't know a lot about nanotechnology can listen to experts, ask questions and share concerns.
UW-Madison experts will explain their work, answer questions and address concerns from members of the public as part of a lively conversation about the impact of recent research.
The focus of the event is definitely on the questions of those in attendance, most of whom are non-scientists. No science background is required!
We want The Nano Cafés to be as democratic and participative as possible: at each Nano Café, we will ask the attendees to point out the themes they want to hear more about during the next Nano Cafés.
You are also invited to join us and help organize future Nano Cafés."
I’ve written before about the importance of public meetings and citizen forums for informing specific, interested publics and for soliciting feedback from highly-engaged stakeholders. The UW Nano Cafés are somewhat different for a variety of reasons.
Most importantly, the Madison Nano Café emerged from a consensus conference on nanotechnology organized by Daniel Kleinman and Maria Powell as part of the UW- Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center. In other words, it is citizen-initiated, rather than being part of systematic outreach efforts by a university, governmental agency, or non-profit.
But this also demonstrates the key problem with self-recruited groups, like the Nano Café. We tend to socialize with people like us. We live in neighborhoods that mirror our own lifestyle, socioeconomic status, and often even ideologies. In my own research on political participation, for example, my co-authors and I* demonstrated that people are more likely to choose discussion partners that are homogenous in terms of demographic variables and ideological preferences. And that problem, of course is exacerbated in a mostly white and predominantly liberal town like Madison, WI where people are much less likely to run into people that are different from them in the first place.
That same line of research, however, also suggests that talking to others about political or scientific issues is good, regardless of how homogenous or heterogeneous the group may be. So what does this mean for Nano Cafés? They can play an important role in engaging interested sub-publics. And they allow for an exchange between scientists and citizens on the public’s “turf,” i.e., in a setting determined by the community, rather than a lecture hall or conference room with assigned speakers and moderated Q&A sessions.
But ironically, the people who attend Nano Cafes are probably also the ones who need them the least. Nano Cafés are not for the vast majority of the public who know and care little about scientific issues, who subscribe to Us Weekly rather than the Scientific American, and who go to a sports bar after work rather than a fair trade coffee shop with for-sale art on the walls. And most of them probably don't discuss the potential toxic nature of nanoparticles.
* Scheufele, D. A., Hardy, B., Brossard, D., Waismel-Manor, I. S., & Nisbet., E. (forthcoming). Democracy based on difference: Examining the links between structural heterogeneity, heterogeneity of discussion networks, and democratic citizenship. Journal of Communication.