On the Nanocode

Nanocode meeting, Brussels, 29th September 2011

Last week I attended a meeting in Brussels to discuss the EU nanocode. This document was an attempt to agree some principles that those working in nano research could use to think about and govern their work. I was asked to wrap up the meeting. This is pretty much what I said…

Thank you to the organisers for putting this together. There aren’t many underground discussions I would enjoy participating in when the weather is this nice. I’m pleased to say this in one of them.

I have been asked to say a bit on what’s happening in the UK on Responsible Innovation agenda, Reflect on what the place of the nanocode in this wider context and offer some sort of response to the question of whether we should broaden this beyond nano to look across all emerging technologies.

First, I think we need to look at this against the right background. Octavio Quintana has described for us the EU’s ambitions to make innovation a central plank of the European project. The big question is what sorts of innovation? The challenge is to move from a discussion of policy just in terms of risk to one in which we also look upstream, at the directions of innovation. One EU expert group report calls this the move from the governance of risk to the governance of innovation (pdf). In a world in which we are increasingly interested in the idea of Grand Challenges (food security, sustainability, energy, clean water, healthy ageing or whatever) both as ways to convince our paymasters of impact and as new ways to organise research, we need to ask how we might better steer emerging technologies towards these?

But I am aware that this view, which sounds radical to some, is not universally held. The comments heard today reveal some disagreement about the question to which the nanocode is the answer. Is there a strategic overview that the nanocode sits in? I suspect not. If we can construct one, what does the nanocode look like? What jobs does it do and what should we not expect it to do? What else is required?

My current occupation, and preoccupation, is to develop a framework for responsible innovation that can be used by the UK EPSRC. Innovation is, according to Ulrich Beck, part of society’s ‘organised irresponsibility’. The default is that we let innovators loose even though we have very few ways of controlling them. And the astonishing thing is that much of the time this is fine. We try to understand and regulate bad things at the end of the pipe, before they blow up. But as technology becomes increasingly powerful, we can no longer assume that goods will outweigh bads.

There’s a game that is played in UK summer fetes called ‘Whack-a-rat’. There is a 4-foot long pipe running up a piece of board. The player crouches down at the exit of the pipe with some sort of whacking device – rounders bat or similar. The stallholder, having taken the player’s 50p, puts a toy rat into the top of the pipe. The rat slides down and shoots out of the other end. The whacker has to react and splat the rat on the ground. If, as normally happens, the rat shoots past, the whacker gets no prize. In this stupid analogy, the regulator has the bat and has to react to innovations that spring from the pipe. Wouldn’t it be better if there was some form of communication from the person inserting the rat, some way of knowing what was coming out of the pipe and when? Even having a transparent pipe would help.

(That last para didn’t make it into my talk. Bit too daft. But I wish it had).


We need to find ways to govern innovation even though it resists control. I am a science policy academic, but I am acutely aware having lived in the worlds of science and policy, of the need to make sure that governance understands and works with the everyday lives of scientists.

EPSRC have been heavily involved with nanotechnology. More recently they have been involved in Synthetic Biology and Geoengineering. When thinking about the nanocode, it is perhaps unhelpful just to think about nano. Nano has already become a particular sort of debate with particular questions. Geoengineering is further upstream, with some new questions, not just about the risks of research and innovation, but about direction, control and responsibility.

All of these emerging tech issues have been subject to lots of public debate. The UK has seen a fashion for upstream public engagement, which I have been involved in. But this has too often been taken as an end in itself, a substitute for technology assessment (a term that rarely enters the UK lexicon). But following the Synthetic biology dialogue exercise, EPSRC decided that the time had come to rethink their own role in governance, the end to which upstream engagement is one means.

The testbed for this approach, which they are calling ‘responsible innovation’ is geoengineering, and particularly the SPICE project, which is the UK’s first geoengineering field trial. EPSRC have put in place a stagegate process, which involves standard criteria of risk and compliance with regulation. But it also asks the research scientists to tackle questions of framing, stakeholder engagement and futures that they see their project either opening up or restricting. I agree, as we have heard today, that we can’t expect scientists to be accountable for the eventual, unpredictable impacts of their research, but we can invite them into a new discussion about responsibility.

The model we are developing reconsiders not just the products of innovation – risks, benefits, impacts, externalities, but also the processes of innovation – transparency, ethical conduct, public dialogue, collaboration, and its purposes – Why are we doing this? Geoengineering is defined by this question. The Responsible Innovation approach tries to be multi-level, and it tries to be sensitive to the needs of institutions and researchers, already faced with too many bureaucratic demands.

So, to turn to the nanocode… my first problem is with definitions. I am a nano-sceptic. I have been involved in the nano debate for a number of years and it has never been completely clear what we were talking about. This exacerbates what Steve Rayner calls the Novelty Trap, whereby innovators hype the novelty of their research until regulators come knocking, at which point they claim that it is business-as-usual. We’ve heard this morning about the lack of specificity in the nano debate, and we have heard the novelty trap described from a consumer group perspective. Nano is a slippery fish, so a code that governs it will always be problematic. The lesson from the UK’s attempt to get people to voluntarily report their nano activities is that the people who voluntarily assume responsibility are not likely to be those that we should hold accountable.

That said, nano is an interesting social phenomenon. It has brough together groups of people who wouldn’t have met and it has started new sorts of conversation. So it makes sense to use this. The risk of broadening the nanocode to look at all emerging technologies is that you lose this social capital. Other areas need to work things out for themselves, even if the things that the nano people are talking about apply equally to synthetic biology or other areas.

Is the nanocode working? How do we tell? I see the nanocode less as a cause of governance change, than as a symptom. It captures a certain sort of conversation. I, like Linda Nielsen, am relaxed about checking and auditing against the code. The more important task, I would argue, is to build things around it, to put it in its place. It is a symbol of something and we need to work out what that something is. We should look at the code not as something carved in stone. We should instead see how it moves through discussions in the coming years. We need to, as Arie Rip mentioned, look at the code-in-action, see how it flexes and tests webs of innovation and responsibility. The international dimension will be crucial. How do we harmonise approaches to self governance when we know that norms of research and ethics are so diverse, especially in the Asian economies where nano research is exploding?

Sheila Jasanoff has a useful pair of terms that provide us with a key question. Will the nanocode be a useful technology of humility, opening up the sorts of discussions that lay the foundation for socially-robust governance? Or will it instead become a technology of hubris, used to insulate nano research from its critics?


About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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2 Responses to On the Nanocode

  1. Pingback: Emerging tech regulation – the ‘Whack a rat’ model « Hilary Sutcliffe's Blog

  2. Pingback: Emerging tech regulation – the ‘Whack a rat’ model | Matter

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