Have Your Say on Emerging (bio/nano)Technologies

I’ve been working with the World Economic Forum for a number of years as part of the vast army of experts who support the Forum in its activities. I don’t get to hob nob with Bill Gates and Tony Blair, although I heard that some of my work may have passed across the desk of Gordon Brown, but the work we do has a subtle impact both on the future direction of global policy, and also in influencing the work of other bodies. Part of that has been the shift from talking about a specific technology, to the realisation that a number of issues are common to all emerging technologies.

Emerging Technologies are ones that:

  • arise from new knowledge, or the innovative application of existing knowledge;
  • lead to the rapid development of new capabilities;
  • are projected to have significant systemic and long-lasting economic, social and political impacts;
  • create new opportunities for and challenges to addressing global issues; and
  • have the potential to disrupt or create entire industries.

Our definition of emerging technologies was picked up by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics who are having a consultation about ‘Emerging Biotechnologies’ by which they mean

  • genetically modified (GM) crops;
  • human enhancement technologies;
  • nanotechnology;
  • regenerative medicine; synthetic biology;
  • and xenotransplantation.

There are a rather interesting  set of questions which I have reproduced below. Responses need to in by 15th June. As always, public perception is perceived as a hot issue, but a recent study from the University of Wageningen, looking at that most contentious of all topics, nanotechnology and food concluded that  consumers are “critical, but not dismissive” of nanotechnologies (with the caveat that “Consumers in the Netherlands do not really know what nanotechnology is”).

  1. How would you define an ‘emerging technology’ and an ‘emerging biotechnology’? How have these terms been used by others?
  2. Do you think that there are there features that are essential or common to emerging biotechnologies? (If so, please indicate what you think these are.)
  3. What currently emerging biotechnologies do you consider have the most important implications ethically, socially and legally?
  4. Are there examples where social, cultural and geographical factors have influenced the development of emerging biotechnologies (either in the past or currently)?
  5. Are there examples where social, cultural and geographical factors have influenced public acceptance or rejection of emerging biotechnologies?
  6. Are there examples where internationalisation or globalisation of research, markets and regulation have influenced the development of emerging biotechnologies?
  7. How have political traditions (such as liberal democracy) and political conditions (e.g. war) influenced the emergence of biotechnologies?
  8. Are there ethical or policy issues that are common to most or many emerging biotechnologies? Are there ethical or policy issues that are specific to emerging biotechnologies? Which of these, if any, are the most important?
  9. Do you think that some social and ethical themes are commonly overlooked in discussions about emerging biotechnologies? If so, what are they?
  10. What evidence is there that ethical, social and policy issues have affected decisions in (i) setting research priorities, (ii) setting priorities for technological development, and (iii) deploying emerging biotechnologies, in either the public or private sector?
  11. What ethical principles should be taken into account when considering emerging biotechnologies? Are any of these specific to emerging biotechnologies? Which are the most important?
  12. Who should bear responsibility for decision making at each stage of the development of an emerging biotechnology? Is there a clear chain of accountability if a risk of adverse effects is realised?
  13. What roles have ‘risk’ and ‘precaution’ played in policy decisions concerning emerging biotechnologies?
  14. To what extent is it possible or desirable to regulate emerging biotechnologies via a single framework as opposed to individually or in small clusters?
  15. What role should public opinion play in the development of policy around emerging biotechnologies?
  16. What public engagement activities are, or are not, particularly valuable with respect to emerging biotechnologies? How should we evaluate public engagement activities?
  17. Is there something unique about emerging biotechnologies, relative to other complex areas of government policy making, that requires special kinds of public engagement outside the normal democratic channels?


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