A democratic inquiry launched and lost: The Dutch national societal dialogue on nanotechnology

Lotte Krabbenborg

In 2009, the Dutch government aimed to open up its policy-making process on newly emerging nanotechnology to bottom-up input from civil society.1 However, the issues that were articulated during the so-called Dutch societal dialogue did not become connected to decision-making processes within research and policy institutions. In order to find out what contributed to this ‘missed opportunity’, this chapter offers an analysis of the actions and considerations of the Dutch government and the committee that was appointed by the government to design and orchestrate the societal dialogue. I show that when the societal dialogue took place, the committee relied on a ‘deficit model’ of communication. The committee formulated restrictions with regards to 1) who could participate, 2) the kind of participation that was considered legitimate, and 3) the type of outcomes that could be produced. Consequently, what happened during the Dutch societal dialogue is that ‘awareness raising’ and ‘reaching as many people as possible’ were prioritised over further enquiry into and articulation of ethical and societal issues with the help of civil society actors, which was the original aim. I will conclude by providing some pointers on how to move forward if the aim is to have more two-way interactions between science and society on newly emerging issues of science and technology.

As already noted in Krabbenborg and Mulder (2015: 12), ‘societal dialogues are ambitious attempts, initiated by government agencies, to create large scale, in-depth, and often longer-term interactions among citizens, science and technology developers and other stakeholders to inform policymakers’. Societal dialogues can be seen as democratic situations where citizens are stimulated to actively participate in policy-making processes regarding new scientific and technological developments. However, how a societal dialogue is actually designed and orchestrated influences the way(s) citizens are expected to participate and the extent to which their issues and concerns are or can be taken up in policy processes. Thus, to learn about democracy as a situated practice, in particular with regard to citizen participation in the governance of new science and technology, it is worthwhile to empirically study the design and outcomes of societal dialogues.

The aim of the dialogue was to identify the ethical and societal issues pertaining to nanotechnology that had not yet been taken up by existing institutions (Ministerial Resolution 2009). Civil society actors, in this respect, were positioned by the Dutch government as dialogue partners for scientists and other stakeholders and as capable of voicing issues that were deemed valuable for the further development of nanotechnology.

The fact that citizens are positioned as actual dialogue partners by the Dutch government can be seen as an example of dialogical science communication (Horst and Davies 2016). In the traditional deficit model of science communication, the public is pictured as consisting of lay persons with a cognitive deficit that makes it difficult for them to understand new science and technology properly (e.g., Irwin and Wynne 1996; Horst and Davies 2016; Shaping 1990). In the more recent dialogical model of science communication, the public is positioned as having intrinsic knowledge that could be beneficial to the scientific process (e.g., Wynne 1992). As such, the public is positioned as being capable of ‘speaking back’ to science (e.g., Gibbens 1999), which assumption is also reflected in the above quote of the Dutch government. In turn, science and technology developers are expected to become more responsive to the needs and concerns of society and to take up these issues in their ongoing decision-making processes (e.g., Wilsdon and Willis 2004; MacNaughten, Kearnes and Wynne 2005). However, as I will show in this chapter, in practice the opportunities created for civil society to ‘speak back’ to science were not fully exploited, neither by the project leaders, the Committee nor the Dutch government.

Multiple actors were involved in designing the Dutch societal dialogue. Possible topics for discussion mentioned by the government were the integrity of the human body in relation to the development of new nano-enabled medical devices, and the risk that nanosciences and nanotechnologies might increase the gap between rich and poor countries, as not every country is able to invest in emerging sciences and technologies (Parliamentary Documents 2008). The actual organisation of the societal dialogue was delegated to a committee appointed by the Dutch government. The mandate of the committee was to produce a midterm and final report about the progress and results of the societal dialogue. These reports were used by the government as a resource to further develop its policies on nanotechnology (Ministerial Resolution 2009). The committee itself was not a partner in the actual discussions on nanotechnology, but it enabled a variety of public engagement activities by funding project proposals. In practice, proposals tended to be submitted mainly by intermediaries with a professional background in bridging technology and society, either as science communicators, educators or STS researchers.

Data collection and historical background

The story of this chapter is based on interviews with policymakers involved in the societal dialogue, in addition to participant observation at four committee meetings and four public meetings organised by the committee. I also analysed Dutch policy documents on the governance of nanotechnology produced between 2006 and 2011. By combining these materials with an analysis of publicly available progress reports, I gained insight into how the committee took up its mandate and negotiated what was at stake and what should be done, as well as how the committee aggregated results from the individual projects in its midterm and final reports. Moreover, I was a project leader myself and as such had to complete bimonthly progress reports produced by the committee, which gave me a participant’s insight into what the committee found important with regard to monitoring the societal dialogue and how it wanted to operationalise its mandate for organising a societal dialogue on ‘pressing ethical and societal issues’ (Ministerial Resolution 2009). As such, one could argue that I had a double role as analyst and participant. However, while a participant observer will always influence the researched just by the fact of being present and asking questions (Råheim et al. 2016), I was not formally part of the deliberation or negotiation with regard to the design, set-up and evaluation of the societal dialogue.

To understand the design of the Societal Dialogue on Nanotechnology, we need to consider the Dutch history of organising large societal dialogues on new sciences and technologies (Krabbenborg and Mulder 2015), as well as the broader governance approach in the Netherlands on how to deal with newly emerging nanotechnology. In the mid-1980s, the Dutch government organised a long-term societal dialogue on nuclear energy, and in the early 2000s, a societal dialogue on biotechnology and food was organised. In both cases, the Dutch government encountered criticism from non-governmental organisations and (social) scientists (Krabbenborg and Mulder 2015). In the case of the dialogue on nuclear energy, for example, the government was criticised for not acting on the outcomes (Hajer and Houterman 1985). With regard to the dialogue on biotechnology and food, the government was blamed for framing the process too much in favour of genetically modified food (Hanssen 2009).

At the beginning of 2000, there was concern in the Netherlands (like elsewhere in the world) that nanotechnology, with its potential to create novel and unpredictable impacts on society,2 would reach the same impasse as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) due to public resistance (Joly and Kaufman 2008). This convinced Dutch government agencies to do things differently and better in the case of nanotechnology (Parliamentary Documents 2006).3 After early initiatives by the Rathenau Institute (Van Est, Malsh, and Rip 2004), the Dutch government asked for advice about the risk of nanotechnology from the Health Council of the Netherlands (2006), and about policy on nanotechnology generally from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (2004). Based on these inputs, the Dutch government recognised that

only providing information and education on nanotechnology is not enough to gain societal acceptance. [In fact], the opinion of Dutch citizens matters […] Societal acceptance can only be established when input from citizens is used to shape R&D trajectories and risk evaluations. (Parliamentary Document 2006: 28, 29)

Accordingly, the Dutch government proposed a twofold strategy to address nanotechnology in society. The proposal was to approach risk and safety issues (for example, the toxicity of synthetic nanoparticles) and ‘broader ethical and societal issues’ in different ways. To identify risks to human health and environment, a sounding board with representatives from industry, science and environmental organisations was set up. In order to identify and assess ‘broader ethical and societal issues’, a societal dialogue with citizens and stakeholders was proposed. Thus, while it was not made explicit, one can recognise the idea(l) of deliberative democracy (see Habermas 1989) underlying the Societal Dialogue on Nanotechnology. In this case, the public at large, scientists and ‘other stakeholders’ were expected to identify and assess the broader ethical and societal issues related to the development of nanotechnology by sharing their concerns and arguments.

The work of the committee

Given the criticism that it displayed too many biases during the societal dialogue on biotechnology and food, the Dutch government decided not to play an active role in the Societal Dialogue on Nanotechnology. It delegated the design and orchestration of the societal dialogue to an independent committee. The nine members appointed by a temporary interdepartmental working group to form the committee had backgrounds in nanoscience and technology, bioethics, STS, toxicology and health policy. The chair of the committee had no formal background in (development and/or governance of) emerging technologies but worked in the domain of economics and had been the president of a national research funding agency. To organise and evaluate the Societal Dialogue, the committee was assisted by a secretariat. This secretariat consisted of three people working for a consultancy group within science, technology and innovation.

The committee opted for distributed activities and launched a call for project proposals. In this call, the committee refined and concretised the societal dialogue by focusing on five application areas of nanotechnology and articulated possible associated ethical and societal issues. The five areas were ‘wellbeing, food and healthcare’, ‘environment and sustainability’, ‘safety and privacy’, ‘international relations’ and ‘sustainable economic growth’. Possible ethical and societal issues for discussion that were identified by the committee included, amongst others, ‘Who or what institution can be held liable in the event of nanotechnology and nanoparticles causing harm to human health?’, ‘What kind of information does the consumer need and how should information be provided to consumers?’, and ‘How can nanotechnology provide alternatives to animal testing?’ (CIEMD 2009: 8; Krabbenborg 2013; Krabbenborg and Mulder 2015). However, as I will show below, in developing its monitoring and evaluation criteria and in writing its official reports, the committee moved away from the specific questions and issues mentioned in the call for proposals, towards more generic questions about nanotechnology and project management.

As the relevant STS literature (Wynne 2001; Rogers-Hayden 2010; Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden 2007) shows, engaging publics to discuss a newly emerging science and technology like nanotechnology is not at all easy. Citizens are typically not aware of new technological developments, as the technologies do not yet play a role in people’s daily lives. Therefore, there are very few, if any, lived experiences that people can draw on in such planned interactions. What forms the technology will take, how it will materialise in society and what the societal impacts might be remains uncertain. Furthermore, the dimensions by which new technologies can be assessed are indeterminate. Therefore, making newly emerging science and technology a topic for societal deliberation is not straightforward (Krabbenborg 2013).

The committee took up this challenge by developing a two-stage approach. The first phase of the societal dialogue would focus on providing information and raising awareness about nanotechnology and related ethical and societal issues with the help of TV programmes, brochures and websites. In the second phase, a dialogue would be initiated based on insights from phase one (CIEMD 2009; Krabbenborg and Mulder 2015: 14). The activities proposed in the second phase were, amongst others, science cafés, panel discussions, one-on-one interviews and theatre performances followed by discussion sessions.

Salient in the call for proposals was the committee’s focus on the citizen as a lay person who needs to become acquainted with nanotechnology, rather than on stakeholders, as had been the suggestion of the Dutch government. Actors such as companies, research institutes and government agencies were mentioned in the call for proposals, but they were positioned by the committee as actors who could take up the outcomes of the societal dialogue (CIEMD 2009: 5), not as active dialogue partners for civil society during actual interaction events (Krabbenborg and Mulder 2015). The choice to focus on citizens as ‘lay persons’ is intriguing. As Irwin (2001) and Goven (2003) argue, when scientists and technology developers do not participate as active dialogue partners during public engagement activities, it is more difficult for citizens to actively participate and problematise the underlying assumptions, worldviews and justifications, as there is no opportunity for citizens to interrogate scientists and technology developers. As I will show, this is what happened in the Dutch societal dialogue, as most projects turned out to be designed within the deficit model of communication, in which nanoscientists were offered a stage to provide information (‘factual knowledge’) about what nanotechnology ‘is’ (the inverted commas are used because the technology is still evolving). The public, in this case so-called lay citizens, was positioned as a listening, passive audience.

Any Dutch citizen and organisation could, in principle, develop a project proposal. The committee, however, explicitly encouraged civil society organisations (CSOs) to submit proposals and participate in the dialogue (CIEMD 2011: 28). However, CSOs could not just propose any kind of project. For example, one Dutch environmental organisation proposed to identify the possible risks of nanoparticles in cosmetics. According to this CSO, risk and safety issues did not receive enough attention in current policymaking on nanotechnology. In order to attract the attention of policymakers (and the media), their initial proposal was to have naked women carrying nanocosmetics at the Binnenhof in The Hague, where the Dutch parliament is seated. The committee members rejected this proposal, as explained by one member:

There was a consensus, at least with eight of us, that the best way to proceed with the Societal Dialogue is to refrain from public displays that might be too controversial. The committee clearly preferred reasoned discussions over heated debates. (Interview with committee member 09-03-2010, Krabbenborg 2013)

During the first round, the proposals of CSOs (which were few) were not funded because they were all evaluated as being of ‘lesser quality’ than other proposals, mainly because they failed to present a ‘balanced view’ of the pros and cons of nanotechnology. The committee and its secretariat were nevertheless still eager to have CSOs on board. The committee approached CSOs and offered guidelines on how to submit ‘good’ proposals for the second round of funding (‘good’ implied proposals that represented both positive and negative aspects). The committee and secretariat did not approach scientists and companies proactively to prompt them to submit proposals. It was their expectation that ‘scientists would be approached by project leaders to join activities’.

While the committee’s desire to avoid public upheaval is understandable, for civil society organisations this demarcation of what can and cannot be done might be perceived as a form of muzzling that could be in tension with their right to free speech. Safeguarding freedom of speech and maintaining independence is essential for civil society organisations in order to fulfil their role as a ‘watchdog for society’ (Bauer and Schmitz 2012; Krabbenborg, 2020). The tensions that can occur between, on the one hand, stimulating bottom-up input from civil society, and on the other hand, setting restrictions on who can participate and what kind of participation is desirable or legitimate is not unique to the Netherlands. In the UK, the organisers of GM Nation? had concerns about the predictability of the contributions and held entrenched ideas about CSOs and therefore excluded them from the debate, looking instead for the ‘silent majority’ of unengaged citizens with apparently ‘no fixed position on GM’ (Lezaun and Soneryd 2007: 290). In France, a group of citizens called Pièces et Main d’Oeuvre (PMO), concerned with the close connections between scientific research, industrial development and political interests, did not want to engage in the national dialogue on nanotechnology as an official participant (Laurent 2016). Instead, PMO used the dialogue as an entry point to spread their message via banners, counter-meetings organised in parallel to official ones, and websites in which PMO described how to contest the French national debate (Laurent 2016: 780, 781).

Developing selection and evaluation criteria

As noted, the Dutch societal dialogue committee started with a two-stage approach of first providing information and raising awareness on nanotechnology and its broader ethical and societal issues, and then, in a second phase, stimulating an informed dialogue. Over time this strategy shifted, as providing information and building awareness, operationalised as ‘outreach’, became the main priority, even if not all committee members were happy with this move (Krabbenborg and Mulder 2015). The chair of the committee positioned himself as the ‘process manager’ of the societal dialogue and strongly advocated this focus. In an interview for ObservatoryNANO (Malsch 2011), the chair described what the aim of the societal dialogue should be and what his role and responsibility was:

Government, but also other stakeholders, including industry, should be kept at quite some distance. The debate itself, but also the contents of the dialogue, should be determined by society. No-one should hold the steering wheel, except society itself (…) I had to play a passive role and not express an opinion on nano. I was just a process manager. (ObservatoryNANO 2011: 2, 8)

This positioning of the chair is striking. While it may sound democratic to let ‘society’ decide on the content of the societal dialogue, when newly emerging science and technology is the topic for debate, such a strategy is problematic. Of course, considering the aim of the Dutch government to establish a participatory interactive policy-making process on nanotechnology with the involvement of civil society, it is wise not to let industry and science predetermine the agenda. However, as has already been pointed out, newly emerging science and technology is still in process. In order for civil society actors to develop an opinion and determine topics for debate, information must be provided by scientists and industrialists about their considerations, assumptions and concrete lines of action with regard to the development of nanotechnology. So, instead of positioning ‘stakeholders, including industry, at a distance’, as the chair suggests, it would be wiser to actively involve them.

Moreover, ‘no expression of an opinion’ on the side of the committee is not the same as being passive. On the contrary, as I will show below, the committee, including the chair, was very active in many ways, and its focus on ‘process management’ in fact led to several restrictions with regard to civil society participation. As already showed in Krabbenborg (2013), some committee members tried to challenge this focus on outreach and knowledge transfer, in particular the participating STS scholar. They wanted to pursue a more reflexive approach in the societal dialogue, as, according to them, the main challenge was to define a meaningful societal dialogue to begin with. During a discussion among committee members about how to visualise outreach efforts, the STS scholar stated:

The focus on numbers makes me feel uncomfortable. We should be more creative; what do we intend to have by 2011? For me, it should be more than tables and graphs. I do not want to say that it is easy, but I do want to show that a public dialogue cannot be captured in numbers and tables only. [Translation by the author]

The focus on outreach rather than debate and contestation became particularly visible during the selection and monitoring of the individual projects. In total, the committee received around 120 proposals. Seventy submissions were asked to send in full proposals. In the final stage, 35 projects were funded. The committee had two important selection criteria: the distribution of selected proposals over the five themes identified in the call for proposals, and a sufficient outreach for each project, with the aim of reaching as many people as possible with every project (CIEMD 2011; see also Krabbenborg and Mulder 2015). This shift to an emphasis on outreach was also visible in the monitoring and evaluation criteria, as project leaders had to indicate the outreach of their projects in bi-monthly progress reports, that is, how many people had been reached and how much media attention had the projects received.4

The individual projects

A variety of projects were organised to stimulate discussion on nanotechnology and its ethical and societal issues. Eighteen of the thirty-five projects were designed to raise awareness and stimulate dialogue by providing resources such as educational materials, vignettes (short stories) and scenarios, TV programmes and brochures (Krabbenborg 2013). The majority of these projects were designed within the deficit model of communication, focusing on providing information from the world of nanotechnology to society, highlighting the promises as well as possible risks and safety issues.

There were also projects that facilitated a more dialogic model of science communication through the production of materials; for example, by creating websites that offered an opportunity for visitors to gain insight into different and sometimes conflicting stakes and opinions present in society in relation to the development of nanosciences and nanotechnologies, as well as allowing the visitors to articulate their own visions and stakes via a special ‘discussion forum’ (Krabbenborg 2013). A civil society organisation, WECF (Women in Europe for a Common Future), organised a project focused on the role of retailers in managing risks related to the market introduction of nanoconsumer products for children. Their website contained short movies in which actors developing newly emerging nanotechnology, retailers, toxicologists and CSOs all articulated their visions, stakes and dilemmas with regard to health and environmental safety issues of nano-enabled products in childcare. The Dutch Society for Nature and Environment, together with the Dutch Association of Manufacturers and Importers of Cosmetics (NCV) developed a digital nano-checkpoint for cosmetics. Visitors to this website could fill in a form and check if their cosmetics contained nanoparticles and what risks this might entail. Background information on risk issues was available. The website focused on providing information and offered an opportunity for visitors to read about the positions and stakes of both the industry (NCV) and an environmental organisation.

Alongside projects developing information materials, there were others that attempted to create face-to-face or online interaction between citizens or between nanotechnology developers and citizens on the ethical and societal issues pertaining to nanotechnology. A project called Interreligious Dialogue, for instance, used the film Gattaca (about genetic enhancement) to stimulate discussion between people with different religious backgrounds on the question of which values or convictions behind the development of nanotechnology can be considered acceptable or not. I myself organised three interactive multi-stakeholder scenario workshops on how certain nano-enabled point-of-care devices in the healthcare sector might change the existing roles, values and responsibilities of physicians, patients and insurance companies. The aim of the workshops was to generate discussion on how to value and anticipate these changes.

Selective aggregation: The road from individual projects to official reports and policy documents

As we have seen, the mandate of the committee was to produce a midterm and final report on the process and content of the Dutch societal dialogue. To do so, the committee had to decide how to aggregate experiences and articulate issues from the individual projects into outcomes that could be taken up in the reports. While ethical and societal issues were articulated in some of the individual projects, almost no ethical and societal issues were mentioned in the official reports produced by the committee. For example, in the final report, called Responsibly onwards with nanotechnology (CIEMD 2011), the main conclusions were: ‘the knowledge of Dutch citizens increased by ten percent between 2009 and 2010’, ‘Dutch citizens see opportunities, but also risks, especially within the field of nanotechnology and food’, and ‘Dutch citizens think transparency of information is more important than precaution’ (CIEMD 2011).

While some reduction of complexity is necessary to enable decision-making, in this case there is some irony involved in how this was done. Enquiries took place, and broader ethical and societal issues were articulated in a number of projects. However, in evaluating and monitoring the projects, the committee relied on a more traditional deficit model of science communication, in which the focus is on outreach, media attention and increased knowledge (Simis 2016). Therefore, the ethical and societal issues that were articulated in individual projects could not be sufficiently captured by the evaluation forms of the committee. As a result, these issues were not given visibility in the reports. Consequently, the issues did not become part of policy considerations within government, as the government had already decided prior to the start of the dialogue that it would only use the summative progress reports as a resource in its decision-making process. What remained were very general conclusions and recommendations which are difficult for policy makers to utilise in concrete policy-making processes (see also Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden 2007).

Selective aggregation of items discussed in dedicated public engagement events into official outcomes is not unique to the Netherlands. Goven (2003, 2006), for example, analysed (large-scale) dialogue processes between science and society on genetically modified plants in New Zealand. She showed that citizens’ concerns that did not fit hegemonic, in this case neoliberal, values of economic growth, commercial incentives and private property rights (e.g., the right to patent DNA sequences) were filtered out and/or rephrased in official outcomes and reports. For example, concerns about the accountability of scientists, transparency (e.g., with regard to labelling GM products), and the public’s right to know were transformed by the organisers into a problem of public misunderstanding of science and ineffective science communication (Goven 2003: 431–432).


I have shown that, despite a promising design and good intentions, the Dutch Societal Dialogue on Nanotechnology did not realise its full democratic potential in the sense of issue articulation and interactive policy-making, because it relied on the deficit model of communication in setting up and evaluating the outcomes of the dialogue. The Dutch societal dialogue has, however, been partly successful on its own terms, for instance in raising awareness and providing information on nanotechnology. While this is important in itself, the process failed to meet its aim ‘to identify and categorise themes and issues, in particular pressing ethical and societal issues pertaining to nanotechnology, that had not yet been taken up by other institutions in the Netherlands’ (Dutch Government 2008).

How could this happen? Was the focus on outreach and the eventual backgrounding of social and ethical issues the result of the fact that organising a national societal dialogue, in the end, is a mundane practice full of contingencies? Or did it have to do with more general difficulties associated with the aim of creating an upstream dialogue between scientists, the public at large and other stakeholders on newly emerging technologies? There were definitely contingencies in the way the committee interpreted its mandate to design and evaluate the societal dialogue. The most significant contingency was that the committee, in order to write its official reports, decided to rely on the content of the progress reports that were written by the individual project leaders (Krabbenborg and Mulder 2015). With this choice, the committee made itself dependent on how much time the project leaders were willing to put into their progress reports. An alternative strategy could have been for committee members to be present as observers at concrete events organised by project leaders and/or to develop more fine-grained evaluation criteria and forms to monitor the projects in order to better capture the content of the debates within them. Furthermore, there were contingencies in terms of which committee members were available and willing to devote extra time and effort (Krabbenborg, 2013). During the process, I observed how some committee members turned out to have less time than foreseen. Moreover, as we have noted, the chair of the committee was focused on raising awareness and managing the process by gaining media attention, while he was less oriented towards the content, which was mostly left to project leaders to decide on. This choice was not without consequences, as it influenced the type of projects that were selected, and the types of outcomes were seen as legitimate.

However, there are also more general difficulties involved. As Rip and Talma (1998) have argued, there is an entrenched cultural repertoire in Western societies which is used to manage newly emerging technologies. A cultural repertoire functions as a toolkit from which actors can draw certain elements (myths, symbols, stereotypes) to make sense of particular situations and shape their actions (Swidler 1986). Risks and safety issues related to new science and technology can become a topic for deliberation between different actors relatively easily, because by now there is a cultural repertoire available for these issues on which actors can fall back. There are examples from earlier technologies that can be mobilised, and there are professional institutions that have responsibilities and mandates, for example, to study the toxicity of chemicals, including nanoparticles, and/or to monitor and inform citizens about health risks and environmental damage. For other societal issues, such as the way technology shapes how we relate to the world and to each other, and how it might change the way we value certain behaviours and norms (Boenink et al. 2010; Feenberg 1999; Swierstra and Te Molder 2012), there is much less of a repertoire available for actors to use as a toolkit. The same holds for the deficit model of communication. While the committee’s reliance on the deficit model, for instance by using concepts and frames from evaluations of traditional mass media campaigns, certainly had to do with the preferences of individual committee members, the fact that tools, skills and routines from the deficit model of communication are widely available in society probably also contributed to this. Concepts and methodologies used to shape communication in a deficit model are already available and people have experience with them, making them an easily available recourse (Krabbenborg and Mulder 2015).

There is no simple solution for how to do better, and the committee should be praised for its pioneering attempt to initiate a broad societal dialogue given these contingencies. One way forward could have been to incorporate (more) moments of reflection during the societal dialogue, paying attention to questions such as: Are we still on track? Are we reaching our goals?

Another way forward is to move from awareness-building to inquiry in the sense of Dewey (1927) and Lindblom (1990): a form of deliberation and negotiation in which participants jointly try to uncover what is at stake in particular indeterminate situations by actively sharing experiences, dilemmas and concerns, and by questioning each other (Krabbenborg 2016). The notion of ‘inquiry’ is important because it encompasses all actors, not just the general public or lay citizens: nanotechnology is new and indeterminate for everyone, and no one has a complete overview of what is or might be at stake. Still, there is the question of sufficient information about and understanding of the socio-technical and socio-political dynamics of newly emerging technology: if information is absent, there is little basis for enquiry. The original two-phase approach of the Dutch societal dialogue did consider this, although it separated awareness-raising from inquiry, putting awareness-raising first rather than making it part of the inquiry. This separation then allowed the committee to postpone and subsequently cancel the inquiry phase altogether, because it believed that much awareness raising (meaning knowledge transfer from science to society, and outreach in the form of reaching as many people as possible) among ‘ignorant citizens’ still had to be done (Krabbenborg 2013). Focusing on citizens as lay persons implicitly assumes the main priority to be raising awareness about what the new technology entails from a scientific perspective. The problematisation of underlying assumptions, justifications and key political and sociotechnical choices then becomes less of a priority.

Upstream public engagement exercises are often positioned by policy makers and organisers alike as an opportunity for citizens to become a dialogue partner for science and industry and break the traditional monopoly of scientists and industrialists with regard to decision-making on technoscientific issues (Goven 2003). Yet when general publics remain conceptualised as having a knowledge deficit that must be filled with ‘factual’, scientific information, and when key information (and expertise) about broader socio-political dynamics is lacking, public engagement may remain a symbolic exercise. There is, however, no quick fix for how to move forward with upstream public engagement exercises such as societal dialogues. As this chapter has shown, and as already argued by Rip and Joly (2012), upstream public engagement events should not be seen as an occasion for open-ended fluidity, in the sense that everything is possible. On the contrary, the wider social, cultural and political contexts influence which strategies and interactions are easier to perform than others (Rip and Joly 2012; Krabbenborg and Mulder 2015). While established rules and practices, such as the entrenchment of the deficit model of communication in research and policy institutes, are not easy to change, they are not static and not all-determining. It is at this point that STS scholars can play an important role (and already do; see, for example, Pallett and Chilvers in this volume). Because of their intermediary position at the science-policy-society interface (see Chilvers 2013), STS scholars can make the dynamics of the wider world visible and turn these into topics for conversation and reflection during, before, and after public engagement events (see also Macnaghthen, Kearnes, and Wynne 2005), just as this anthology aims to do.


1 Parts of the case study and analysis presented in this chapter have already appeared in earlier work. For more details, see Krabbenborg and Mulder (2015) and Krabbenborg (2012; 2013).

2 Nanotechnology refers to the observation and manipulation of matter at the nanoscale (1–100 nanometer). One of its revolutionary features is that chemicals at the nanoscale possess unique properties when compared to their macroscale equivalents (Bowman, 2017). Nanosilver particles, for example, have unique optical, electrical and thermal properties, which are now used in all sorts of (consumer) products. As such, nanotechnology is surrounded by a halo of expectations (for example, to improve healthcare). But there are also concerns, including the risks that engineered nanomaterials might pose to human health and the environment.

3 An early societal debate in the 1970s focused on recombinant DNA. Investment in biotechnology in the 1980s was accompanied by public debates (Rip and Talma 1998), which increased during the 1990s when GM food was introduced to the market. People were hesitant to buy GM products, and environmental organisations and consumer groups were concerned about potential harm to human health and consumer freedom and were also worried by the power of the GM industry (especially dominant companies such as Monsanto). As a response to the social contestation, government agencies and industry wanted to involve representatives of civil society. By the early 2000s, government agencies in the Netherlands and the UK had initiated large-scale societal debates. The assumption was that informed dialogue would lead to societal acceptance – this, however, did not happen.

4 In the bi-monthly progress reports, three questions related to project management (planning, cooperation with other projects, finance), three on outreach (direct outreach, in terms of the numbers of people reached in the project activities; indirect outreach, through an overview of media attention; and an overview of media communication plans and ways to reach out to the general public for the next two months), and one question on ‘findings relevant to the Societal Dialogue on Nanotechnology and suggestions for new or further possibilities’ had to be addressed. These questions concerned the process. Questions aimed at elucidating content were not part of the progress reports.


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