Saturday, October 14, 2006

FDA hearing and public opinion: About more than just trust ...

The precautionary principle and science are like the welfare state and a market economy. No one seriously argues that we don’t need some combination of both. But the question is: How much weight do we assign to each, and what are the goals we have in mind when we do?

And this week’s FDA hearing on nanotech was a perfect example:
“[T]he U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Nanotechnology Task Force got more than just a mixed message Tuesday when it convened experts and stakeholders to get advice as to whether the agency should regulate nanotechnology products.

Some said current regulations are sufficient, while others said safety testing is long overdue, especially for products like cosmetics. But they also disagreed as to how to define a nanoparticle, and even if there should be such a definition in the first place.”
(for the full article from Smalltimes, click here)

All arguments about labeling at the FDA hearing came down to three competing interests: the scientific community, the business community, and the public. Interestingly, the argument was made that regulations are necessary in order to not lose the public’s trust. But regulations, of course, are just on potential predictor of trust.

Trust in regulatory bodies tends to spill over from issue to issue, and people who felt that the government did not deal adequately with the risks associated with previous issues, such ag biotech or asbestos, will also be less trusting when it comes to regulating nano. More importantly, however, trust is shaped my mass media and their coverage of emerging technologies. And the FDA and other federal agencies should be very concerned about how to communicate about nanotech not just with the public, but with journalists who will cover the story.

Journalists favor conflict over science and debate over discourse. For the Intelligent Design issue (i.e., teaching various creationist beliefs in public school science classes), this has produced the warped perception among large parts of the public that scientific findings are inherently tentative and uncertain. And media are in part to blame. Based on a faulty understanding of balance, some media organizations present “both sides” of the Intelligent Design debate, as if the pro-ID position were on par with other scientifically-based viewpoints.

In addition, for many emerging technologies, the question if we have regulations in place to minimize health effects is irrelevant for public support. Stem cell research is a great example of an issue where various sub-publics would oppose any scientific progress on ideological and religious grounds, regardless of how well regulated the approval processes by federal agencies would be. In short, public opinion on nanotech is about a lot more than trust.