Citizen participation included in nanotechnology legislation

Readers of last spring's "Technopolis" may recall news that the
House of Representatives version of a bill funding nanotechnology
research included provisions for occasional evaluation of this research
by citizens panels. As the legislation passed through the labyrinthine
corridors of capitol hill, this feature of the bill encountered some
criticism, especially the mistaken claim that attempts at citizen
participation in technology assessment had not been effective.
The last I heard during the summer was that language about
citizens panels and consensus conferences had been cut from the
bill the Senate passed. Oh well....

Now it turns out that Public Law 108-153, the 21st Century
Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, restored some
of the content. The relevant text from Public Law 108-153
which Bush signed, is given below. I believe that reference
to citizens panels and consensus conferences in these matters
is something of a first in U.S. lawmaking!

Public Law 108-153
108th Congress

An Act

To authorize appropriations for nanoscience, nanoengineering, and
nanotechnology research, and for other purposes.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the
United States of America in Congress assembled,
. . . . .
[Here is the passage:]

(10) ensuring that ethical, legal, environmental, and other
appropriate societal concerns, including the potential use of
nanotechnology in enhancing human intelligence and in developing
artificial intelligence which exceeds human capacity, are
considered during the development of nanotechnology by--
(A) establishing a research program to identify
ethical, legal, environmental, and other appropriate
societal concerns related to nanotechnology, and
ensuring that the results of such research are widely
(B) requiring that interdisciplinary nanotechnology
research centers established under paragraph (4) include
activities that address societal, ethical, and
environmental concerns;
(C) insofar as possible, integrating research on
societal, ethical, and environmental concerns with
nanotechnology research and development, and ensuring
that advances in nanotechnology bring about improvements
in quality of life for all Americans; and
(D) providing, through the National Nanotechnology
Coordination Office established in section 3, for public
input and outreach to be integrated into the Program by
the convening of regular and ongoing public discussions,
through mechanisms such as citizens' panels, consensus
conferences, and educational events, as appropriate;


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dick Sclove has pointed out that the National Institutes of Health
has been using what it calls "consensus conferences" for a while,
but that these are a far cry from the open, deliberative citizens
meetings used in, for example, the Danish model of technology
assessment. Hence, an important challenge now is to make sure that
the real promise of democratizing this dimension of science and
technology policy-making is accomplished in authentic ways, using the
best practices available, not a counterfeit that merely consults the
"experts" and special interests for their limited, self-interested views.

During these dreary times in U.S. public life, this novel provision
of the nanotech law can be counted one small step for American