Sunday, July 30, 2006

Nano Cafés: Engaging the interested



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.

1 comments:

Mathilde Colin & Maria Powell said...

- “it is citizen-initiated, rather than being part of systematic outreach efforts by a university, governmental agency, or non-profit.”

--> The Science Cafes held last year, which were forerunners to the Nano Cafes, were indeed initiated and organized entirely by citizens who took part in the original UW-sponsored consensus conference on nanotechnology--with no staff or funding support. This is, indeed, unique compared to other Science Cafes, and the Nano Cafes probably would not be happening without the initiative of these citizens. However, this year's Nano cafes are co-sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center.
They benefit from some financial support and also from Daniel Kleinman, Maria Powell, and Mathilde Colin's expertise and time . The speakers are also UW researchers who agree to come for free.

- “the key problem with self-recruited groups, like the Nano Café. We tend to socialize with people like us"

-->Although not present at this meeting, you feel you can judge the attendees homogeneity?
There were 50 people attending the meeting and we do not have detailed information about the attendees incomes, political affiliation, and education levels.
What we can say anyway is that there were as many women as men, and that the age range was huge.
Moreover, the original consensus conference included 3 minorities (23% of our 13 participants, which is higher proportionally than in Dane County), one handicapped person, and an equal number of women and men. The ages ranged from 19-70, education levels ranged from high school to masters, and more than half of the participants had incomes well under the median for Madison. Three of the participants were single mothers with low incomes. Only 2 or 3 of these citizens had any science background (albeit minimal), and none knew anything about nanotechnology.
Several of the citizens from the original consensus conference, including a single mom, an "English as a second language" teacher, a retired school principal, and a former nuclear plant architect, are citizen organizers of this year's Nano Cafes.
They all live in different neighborhoods in Madison (including some very diverse and challenged neighborhoods). This group is hardly "homogeneous,"these citizens are unlikely to socialize outside of these venues, and they are certainly not likely to be sitting around reading Scientific American. Yet they were all in the Nano Cafe audience.

More generally, if we feel that having a diverse group of citizens is important for participatory mechanisms, we believe that this diversity has to be built over the long term. For a first event of this nature, and given the time-constraints surrounding the project, this starting point is very promising.
Be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water! We will do our best to diversify our audience even morefor the next cafés!


- “the people who attend Nano Cafes are probably also the ones who need them the least”

-->What do you mean by that? Who does "need" them and why?
Further, you suggest that we are only engaging the "interested." By definition, attendees are people who were already (or have become) interested. The more important question then, is why are these people interested, and more importantly, what motivated them to become engaged enough to help organize the event and/or attend the cafe? Some of them became interested thanks to our outreach efforts before the Nano Café. We advertised it in local media, and hung posters in public areas, distributed handbills and flyers at public events where many people from different backgrounds come (for example the free Concerts on the Square), and talked to many people in different parts of Madison. Of course, your suggestions for ways to get more of the "uninterested" involved in our next Nano Cafes are welcome!

People who attended the First Nano Café may not all come from poor areas, but many of them had no particular background knowledge in nanotechnology before coming. Many of them said they really appreciated the general overview provided by the UW speaker, made in plain simple language so that lay people with no previous scientific knowledge could understand.


- “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."

-->What do you mean by the "vast majority of the public"? Surveys, including yours, show that there is no one "vast majority public" when it comes to science and technology, but rather many different "publics"--people of different genders, ages, races, incomes, and education levels have different perspectives on technologies and the risks and benefits associated with them.

Surveys done worldwide find that minorities and women tend to be more concerned about environmental health risks, such as those potentially associated with emerging nanotechnologies. Your own study (Scheufele & Lewenstein, 2005) which interestingly does not report race demographics, shows that more males and to some extent wealthier and more educated people (possibly through other factors like science media use?) are more likely to support nanotechnology.
It is rather telling that you chose "support for nanotechnology" as the dependent variable in your study.
Is this why you think white educated people do not "need" Nano Cafes--because they are already more likely to support it? Our goal is not support for nanotechnology, but rather critical and informed engagement about science applications and their societal, environmental, ethical implications.

Mathilde Colin & Maria Powell, Nano Cafés Organizers