It is precisely Henry Miller’s attitude of leaving policy and technology development to the ‘experts’ that has left us in the position we find ourselves today. The development of nuclear technology has resulted in the Fukishima disaster and the proliferation of nuclear weapons to countries such as North Korea; the green revolution has poisoned soil and water and destroyed agrarian cultures; and the development and widespread use of fossil fuel technologies is fuelling catastrophic climate change.
The development of powerful new technologies such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology and geoengineering has upped the stakes still further. It is absolutely vital that we learn from the lessons of the past and don’t let scientists, particularly those with vested interests, run the show when it comes to regulating and assessing the broader social and environmental impacts of these new technologies. To date, those scientists devoted to commercializing technologies have effectively been left to write the regulations governing biotechnology and nanotechnology development. The result is either no regulation or a regulatory system that doesn’t protect human health and the environment from the risks posed by these powerful new technologies.
Nanotechnology scientists may be experts in nanotechnology but they are rarely also experts in ecology, ecotoxicology or the broader social and environmental implications of their work.
Once new scientific advances are widely adopted – such as coal fired power plants or pesticides – restricting or replacing them becomes extremely difficult, even when the harm they cause has become clear. The release of synthetic organisms or tinkering with the world’s climate through geoengineering could have global repercussions and it is vitally important that the risks associated with these technologies are properly assessed before they released into the environment.
The key to making better technology choices is ensuring that new technologies primarily serve the public interest, not a private one. This means involving as broad a range of perspectives as possible early on in the development process. And yes this includes engaging the public. The stakes associated with these new technologies are simply too high to leave it to the ‘experts’.