Research and innovation can benefit from being open to the public. Early and continuous engagement is key to sustainable, desirable and acceptable innovations, in which R&I is aligned with the values, needs and expectations of society. One area in particular is nanotechnology research and innovation. Nanotechnology encompasses a wide range of technological developments in areas as diverse as healthcare, manufacturing and agriculture.
What is nanotechnology? And why does it matter?
Nanotechnology in a nutshell
Nano originates from the Greek word nanos, which means dwarf and refers to something very small. Nanotechnology is defined not by its subject matter, but by the scale at which it operates: the nanometer, or one billionth of a meter. Nanotechnology seeks to manipulate and control matter in a size range of 100 nanometer down to the size of atoms (approximately 0.2nm).
Not all nano-sized objects are man made. Many nanostructures occur naturally. They can be found in sea salt and volcanic ashes, among others. However, it is only in recent years that sophisticated tools have been developed to investigate and manipulate matter at the nanoscale. This has greatly enhanced our understanding of the nanoscale world. We now know that by rearranging or restructuring the atoms and molecules of a particle, the properties and behaviour (such as melting point, conductivity or chemical reactivity) of the particle change. For instance, gold particles at the nanoscale are not yellow as we know them, but can appear red or purple. Because of these changes in their optical properties, gold nanoparticles can be used for medical imaging. Nanomaterials may differ significantly from their larger scale relatives, opening doors for new technological opportunities. Read more about nanotechnology.
Why might you care about nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is already a part of our lives. Nanomaterials are used to enhance the properties of consumer products like some toothpaste, sunscreen, food packaging, and smartphones. Proponents of nanotechnology claim that this is just a glimpse of the possible future benefits for consumers. But others are concerned that nanomaterials may harm human and environmental health. So, even though applications of nanotechnologies are developed to provide better products to consumers, there may be unforeseen consequences.
To what extent can we anticipate the future impacts of the use of nanomaterials? How should the potential benefits of nanotechnology be weighed against the possible unforeseen consequences? And who gets to decide? In recent years, a wide range of projects has been initiated to assess nanotechnology, measuring the effects of nanoparticles on human and environmental health and exploring possible future scenarios with citizens and stakeholders. Read more about the governance of nanotechnologies.
Join in: engagement opportunities
Nanotechnology, like all novel scientific advances, introduces new opportunities and uncertainties. This invites important questions about what products citizens may or may not want, and about the risks we are prepared to tolerate. These are questions which affect us all. As a stakeholder, you may also want to become involved in what happens next.
To help you get started, GoNano did some exploratory research and developed a public engagement database, listing organizations and projects that are currently out there looking for your feedback. These initiatives would like to find out about your concerns, needs and wishes on nanotechnology-related topics. Some directly invite you to join their discussion, others offer guidance on how to become involved in the nanodebate . Click here for the public engagement database.
GoNano also developed a ‘How to..’ guide for citizens on public participation. With this guide, we would like to share our lessons learned. Hopefully it will support citizens who would like to engage with nanotechnologies to express their own needs and concerns and ensure that their thoughts are taken into account in future developments. The guide offers a five-step approach which aims to help you define your interests, identify the right opportunity and become involved in nanotechnology research and development. It’s an invitation for citizens to express their own needs and concerns and help shape the future directions of nanotechnologies. Click here for the ‘How to..’ guide.
The GoNano approach
GoNano believes that research and innovation can benefit from being more open to societal needs and concerns. Over the course of three years (2017-2020), GoNano enabled collaborative development (co-creation) in three nanotechnology application areas: food, energy and health. We first consulted citizens about their wishes, needs and concerns regarding future nanotechnology applications. This was used as input for the first and second stakeholder workshops, which aimed to stimulate citizens, civil society organisations, industry, researchers and policy makers across Europe to co-create research aims and think about concrete (product) suggestions for future nanotechnologies. Read more about the GoNano approach and results.