I was recently invited to participate in the 2nd Nanosafety Dialogue for Success, organised by the Directorate-General for Health and Consumers of the European Commission in October 2008 in Brussels. This was one of many dialogues occurring in many countries. Sometimes it may appear, from a civil society point of view, that we could spend all our time travelling and dialoguing: but what do we have to show for this?

Industry and government seem overly keen to get civil society involved in all manner of dialogues, while at the same time apparently not taking on board what we have to say. Is this because we all have different expectations of what a dialogue is and what it can and can not achieve? Do the parties, in fact, have divergent expectations? Dialogue is a process of getting relevant information out into the open and put into what will hopefully become a shared pool of understanding.

The problem is that dialogue in and of itself is not decision making: it is really all about getting every one to have their say and to be seen to have had the opportunity to express their ideas and concerns. Herein lies the problem.

Civil society keeps insisting that being heard is not enough, we insist that democracy means that we are involved in decision making – we expect transparency, we expect choice and finally and importantly we want the option to say no to certain options.

Part of the issue is that governments everywhere are firmly wedded to a growth agenda. Mistakenly governments believe that a competitive lead, for instance in nanotechnology, is crucial to the future economic performance of their countries. This deeply flawed idea that new technologies should inform our human and environmental values has now become the master narrative. Of course it should be the reverse: human and environmental values need to inform technology choices.

The solution is simple, but requires a shift of the mind. We must decouple innovation from growth. Innovation must be linked to sustainability, safety and choice. This is because new innovations should deliver foremost on the public good (and not predominately on private gain).

The public good can be encapsulated in the safety of humanity and earth, the sustainability of our continued life on earth and the ability to provide the capacity to discard old unsustainable and unhealthy methods. If these three values become the prime motivators and motors for innovation, then moderate growth will follow. Perhaps our recent financial crisis is a convenient circuit breaker to assist us in breaking with our unhealthy obsession with growth.

But back to the issue of the purpose of dialogues. Governments have started initiating “dialogues” in order to appear, at least on the surface, to address citizen concerns surrounding accountability and governance of nanotechnology and to appear to have learnt from past mistakes. Even industry is getting into the act. Not a month goes by when I do not receive an invitation to yet another dialogue, either by government or industry.

But to be quite frank, industry can only think of the next quarter’s profits and is doing its best to obfuscate, deny and twist the details to its own ends or to promote its own reality over that of others. To illustrate, here is one example from the aforementioned conference in Brussels. The chair of the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA’s) scientific working group on nanotechnology warned that some conventional (bulk) food ingredients could already contain nanoparticles. This was categorically denied by the representative of the food industry, even when vigorously challenged by Dr.Hatto, the lead standards representative. But of course it is all a matter of definition. The food industry just happens to have one under which their reality is entirely correct. Civil society and some government officials inhabit a different reality.

Another key issue is around the process of dialogue. Some government officials (who shall remain nameless of course) believe that allowing people to vote every three years is sufficient participation in decision making. Others design such shabby ”processes” that it appears on closer inspection that the main purpose of the process is to tick the appropriate box (civil society stakeholder consulted) and an intention to respond to valid concerns is intentionally left out of the process.

In my opinion a true dialogue must not only enable all participants to be heard equally, but also must result in action. It is for this reason, that I am tending to think that we as civil society should put a complete stop to all forms of dialogue about nanotechnologies that are not linked to a decision making process about how the technology should be implemented and developed.. We have talked enough. Our opinions and positions are more than clear.

We have a simple set of demands: no data no market; pre market testing; post market monitoring; labelling; and a moratorium until all this is implemented. We also want a right to be involved in halting technology we deem not in the public interest and a right to have a say on who gets funded with public money. We also want a general reconsideration of the way in which technological development is initiated, funded and progressed so that it becomes democratic, inclusive and sustainable.

I think it is time that civil society reconsider “engagement” with government and industry. From now on we should only engage with government and /or industry if there is a clear pathway from dialogue to decision making.

Government and industry are currently under the illusion that if they have a dialogue with us that this will legitimise any decisions they make. It does not. Civil society groups want to be heard and we want what we have to say to actually make a difference.

Rye Senjen