Weak signals in the governance of emerging technologies: the case of nanotechnology (Presentation October 2010: Tentative Governance in Emerging Science and Technology)

 Petra Schaper-Rinkel, Weak signals in the governance of emerging technologies: the case of nanotechnology, presentation on the conference  „Tentative Governance in Emerging Science and Technology“, 28 & 29 October 2010, University of Twente

What is regarded as nanoscience and nanotechnology (NST) today is a field formed and shaped by various actors and ultimately negotiated in the political sphere. The field of nanotechnology policy is not determined by government nor by industry or science. Rather, it evolves in a contingent – but nevertheless structured – process of governance in which multiple actors interact in a dynamic setting. Within this process, weak signals (signals indicating the possibility of future change) have attracted increasing attention.
Regarding weak signals from within a positivistic tradition as given entities that indicate future change, one could say that weak signals were (‘correctly’) identified by scientists, industry participants, policy-makers early on. Thus, NST became an emerging issue in science and innovation policy. Regarding weak signals from a post-positivistic perspective, i.e., that fields of emerging technologies are constructed through discourse, weak signals can be understood as “boundary objects” that link different social worlds, such as science, politics, industry, NGOs and media. In this view the way signals become relevant (regarded first as weak signals and then as elements of an emerging technology) is itself part of the governance process. In this paper we examine the development of the governance of nanotechnology as a case in which weak signals are simultaneously identified, assessed and constructed.
The weak signals that became relevant for the governance of nanotechnology related to three main emerging issues within the governance of Nanotechnology. The first governance issue pertains to the identity and boundaries of the emerging technology, distinguishing between realistic and unrealistic expectations. This issue implies questions such as: What are the most far-reaching yet achievable opportunities of nanoscience and nanotechnologies are? What are weak signals for future change and what are signals ‘only’ rooted in science fiction? The second governance issue pertains to relevance and implies questions such as: What are (weak signals for) the most promising directions for future nanotechnology research and development and what are the criteria for assessing its relevance? The third governance issue pertains to regulation where weak signals indicating future risks are highly disputed, focusing on how the development ¬of nanotechnologies can be accelerated while avoiding risks.
This paper discusses how actors from government, academia, industries, and civil society negotiate the boundaries of nanoscience and nanofiction by identifying, assessing, shaping, and contextualizing weak signals. The aim of the paper is to analyze the role of weak signals in complex governance processes and in different governance approaches.