Conference on Outreach and Public Engagement in Nanotechnology (Delft, Netherlands, 30 October 2008)


Conference report

This one-day conference (click here for the agenda) was sponsored by the Netherlands Ministry for Education, Culture and Science; the Rathenau Institute and the OECD. The conference clearly illustrated the different stages that countries are at in their experiences of public engagement with nanotechnology. Some countries, like the UK, have already carried out many activities in the area, have undertaken analysis of their findings and are looking to see how they can use the results in the formulation of policy. Others were seen to be at an earlier stage and spoke of different experiences, sometimes made more complex due to the lack of information available on such new technologies.

Reasons for communication, outreach and public engagement were identified by the speakers as:

  • Building trust and openness in policy formulation and in government dealings with the public
  • Building partnerships
  • Enabling governments to develop better policies, informed by stakeholder views
  • Good governance (although there were concerns expressed that this might be a mechanism to push a policy or to replace democracy)
  • Aiming to change perceptions (e.g. perceptions of risk)
  • Visibility (to be seen to engage) and for credibility (e.g. of scientists)
  • Inclusiveness
  • Establishing networks
  • Broadening the social debate
  • Monitoring and evaluation purposes
  • As a reaction to negative past experiences (examples such as GMOs and BSE were cited).

The stakeholders involved in the public engagement activities that were described included government (including for example politicians, ministries, agencies); scientists (including social scientists); the public and citizens; the business sector; NGOs and agencies; agents of change and activists; communicators and the media; and people and groups in other countries.

The range of activities described was extensive ranging from science ambassadors to blogs and from games to research into ethical, legal and social issues. These included experts (e.g. in Korea, Australia, the Netherlands); technology assessment (e.g. Ireland); reports and fact sheets (e.g. Korea); surveys (e.g. Australia); art (e.g. the Netherlands, Australia); blogs (e.g. Canada); games and competitions (e.g. Ireland, the Netherlands); television (e.g. Korea, Ireland, the UK); public meetings and lectures (e.g. many countries); newspapers and related media (e.g. Canada); and research (e.g. Australia, the EU).


The following important issues to consider when preparing for public engagement were identified:

  • Know why you are engaging, know your goals
  • Remember and learn from past experiences
  • Select and understand your audience
  • Carefully consider and frame the question which you wish to address
  • Choose your tools and methodologies to suit purpose\
  • Involve decision makers
  • Be aware that there are varying interlinked cultural and personal factors which influence risk perception. These may include responses to media coverage, personal experience and beliefs.

Other considerations in preparing for public engagement included:

  • Optimizing cost benefit – avoid large activities if they have small benefits
  • Considering size issues (is it important that an event be large and visible?)
  • Deciding in advance which is important: the process or the output, or both?
  • Remembering that organized public engagement is just one part of a wider system, one part of the experience of stakeholders;
  • Evaluating your past efforts and learn from them
  • Ensuring a good feedback loop (e.g. find out what the participants experienced, learn from it and build on it for future activities)
  • Thinking about how the results will be used.

The WPN is continuing to work on this area, building on the findings to date, with delegate countries undertaking public engagement case studies in 2009-2010.