Tuesday, July 04, 2006

One more take on outreach: research festivals?

With co-sponsorship from trade associations and nano businesses, scientists at the University of Warwick in the UK have organized a “Research Festival” on nanotechnology. Aimed at school-age children and interested members of the public, the conference will include talks about “nanochannels, nanofluidics, nanobots, nanotubes, nanodots, nanoimaging and … exciting lectures, and research presentations by both industry and academia” (for a full description of the activities, see the web site and press release).

While focusing some of their efforts on K-12 education is probably the right approach, it is less clear if pep talks by scientists and industry representatives are the best way of addressing potential concerns and questions from the general public. And a closer look at the press release seems to suggest that this is less an effort of public outreach than a promotional effort on the part of scientists and industry.

In fact, the press release explicitly refers to the conference as part of a “campaign to improve the public’s understanding and acceptance of nanotechnology with a special conference aimed at local schoolchildren and members of the public. The move comes amid warnings that British science will suffer unless the attitudes of policy makers and media change.”

A more interesting approach comes from Dublin City University in Ireland where researchers try to inform policy making by examining and listening to concerns and hopes of the general public. Jointly organized by communication researchers and physicists, the public discussion on nanotechnology tomorrow is as much about listening to the public as it is about informing citizens:

The background to the public discussion, project manager Brian Trench, head of the School of Communications at DCU, told siliconrepublic.com, is that “DCU is conducting research on public attitudes to and awareness of nanotechnology as a new area of science technology that’s attracting interest in the international scientific community and the science funding communities and of which there are already some significant practitioners here in Ireland (Trinity College Dublin, Intel, Bell Labs)”.

He continued: “This is a relatively new area which has attracted a great deal of money and interest in the US in particular. Ireland has the option to decide that this too is an area of interest along with the other areas like biotechnology and information communication technologies and so on.”

The new science strategy published last week makes a few passing references to nanotechnology. Trench commented: “None of them represent any major commitment in this area but certainly show the Government and the state agencies are actively looking at this as an area of investment in research and development (R&D).” Prior to R&D investment decision being made, the event aims to discover what the current picture is regarding public awareness and public attitudes.

“We’re looking at what people know about it and what they care about it. If they know anything, are they hopeful or are they fearful? What benefits do they see? What applications are they interested?”

(for the complete article from Siliconrepublic.com, click here.)