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Consumer Conference Nanotechnology
Background information for journalists
The "Consumer Conference on the perception of nanotechnology in the areas of foods, cosmetics and textiles" was launched as a pilot project by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). It is jointly staged with the Independent Institute for Environmental Concerns (UfU) and the Institute for Ecological Economic Research (IÖW). Consumer conferences are being tested as one possible tool for extended risk communication. This is the first time in Germany that a public institute or agency has made use of this risk communication tool.
Risk communication is one of BfR’s statutory tasks. The objective is to provide information on the latest scientific research and findings on health risks in line with BfR’s tasks in the fields of foods, feedstuffs, consumer articles, products and chemicals. BfR's risk communication activities seek firstly to establish contacts between scientists involved in risk assessment and, at the same time, to promote the exchange of information on the expert level. Furthermore, they endeavour to determine how the public at large or affected groups perceive the health risks. The findings obtained are taken over into risk assessment strategies. The basis for BfR’s risk communication activities is a participative dialogue between risk assessors, managers and stakeholders. They include consumer representatives, scientists, associations, politicians, industry as well as other social groups. The staging of a consumer conference puts this remit into practice by already involving consumers upstream of a broadly based consumer application in the discussions about the opportunities and risks of nanotechnology.
Consumer conferences: A tool for directly involving consumers in discussions about a controversial theme that concerns them
The consumer conference draws on the model of the consensus conference. This tool was developed and is used in Denmark. The subject matter and goal of this consumer participation procedure is to assess new technologies and scientific developments from the angle of informed lay persons (citizens or consumers). Based on this model three supraregional or nationwide conferences have already been staged in Germany on genetic diagnostics, stem cell research and brain research. The characteristic feature of these conferences is a structured public dialogue between experts and lay persons. The lay persons discuss the subjects on the agenda in an in-depth manner with the invited experts. In a fair and open discussion a constructive argumentation climate is promoted within which a structured, science-driven opinion-forming process is possible. The goal of the opinion-forming and assessment process spanning several weeks is to identify the different attitudes, views and expectations of the consumer group and to document consensus or differing stances in a final, independent vote.
The effectiveness of consumer conferences depends on whether and, if so, how they are integrated into political or social processes. Hence, their impact can vary greatly. The experiences particularly of Nordic countries show: consumer conferences create a counterweight to expertocracy (the predominance of scientists’ and lawyers’ knowledge) and strengthen the role of lay persons in society. Experience shows that consumers always come up with sound, well thought through recommendations on complex scientific and technological problems whenever they are given an opportunity to take a critical look at the relevant facts and scientific findings presented in comprehensible language. Furthermore, consumer conferences provide an opportunity to open up topics of importance for society as a whole that had previously only been discussed in expert circles, to wider public debate.
Nanotechnology - key technology of the 21st century
The nature of a key technology means that it is used in many areas which are also of relevance to consumers. The subject nanotechnology is important for the Federal Institute of Risk Assessment (BfR), particularly in the context of consumer health protection because new materials produced using nanotechnology are increasingly being used in consumer products like cosmetics, clothing, household products and, in future, in foods and food supplements, too. In the field of nanotechnology this applies especially to nanoparticles and nanoscale coatings. What is important is to find out what potential opportunities and risks are linked to the consumer application of these technologies and the extent to which consumers are willing to accept these risks given the potential benefits. Research into consumer perception of these technologies is still in the teething stages. At the consumer conference public risk assessment will examine, for the first time, the perception of the risks of nanotechnology by consumers and - if possible - incorporate this into risk assessment. The main emphasis is on:
overcoming information deficits and promoting a differentiated opinion-forming process on nanotechnology amongst consumers;
preparation of an informed vote by consumers on applications of nanotechnology in the areas foods, cosmetics and textiles;
the public handing over of the consumer vote to the decision-makers in consumer protection, politics, science and industry.
The purpose behind the drawing up of a fact-based opinion of consumers is to establish the requirements they expect a “sustainable” nanotechnology to meet. This leads us to the question about how we should deal with nanotechnology in the future. The vote by consumers gives both producers as well as decision-makers from political circles and public consumer protection some guidance on how to deal with nanotechnology. Furthermore, it is very important for the general public to gain broadly based, realistic insight into the opportunities and risks of nanotechnology.
The structure of the consumer conference
The consumer conference on nanotechnology is broken down into three phases: during the two preparatory weekends (9/10 September 2006 and 14/15 October 2006), the consumer group was introduced to the subject. It put together questions on nanotechnology and chose the experts who would be questioned by it in public during the final weekend. This process was largely shaped by the consumers themselves. They sought out information in the width and depth they deemed necessary and sufficient. The third phase is this three-day final conference in Berlin. At a public hearing in the Catholic Academy on 18 and 19 November 2006 the invited experts answer questions from the consumer group. The consumer group then withdraws for private deliberations in order to prepare its consumer vote on nanotechnology. The general public is informed of the outcome of the vote on 20 November 2006 at the Federal Press Agency and it is then passed on to representatives of public agencies, politics and industry.
Selection of the participants
The participating consumers were chosen according to a random procedure. Similar to earlier consumer conferences just under 6,000 randomly selected individuals who live in Berlin/Brandenburg were sent a personal invitation. Eight local resident's registration offices in Brandenburg towns each supplied 250 addresses. Furthermore, eight districts in Brandenburg selected by drawing lots were invited to participate and each asked to supply 250 addresses. In Berlin eight districts with 250 addresses each were included. The background to this selection was the desire to have balanced representation of rural, city and town residents in order to ensure a heterogeneous composition of consumers at the conference.
A total of 41 people expressed an interest in attending the consumer conference. From these replies 16 participants in the "Consumer Conference: Nanotechnology" were selected on 29 June 2006. The consumer group consists of seven women and nine men aged between 20 and 72.
The "Consumer Conference: Nanotechnology" is accompanied by a scientific council. The council is independent and provides advice to the project organisers on the preparation and answering of contextual and methodological questions.
Four scientists agreed to participate in the council who have extensive knowledge about the nanotechnology debate and are also well-known experts in the field of risk management and risk communication. They are:
Prof. Dr. Arnim von Gleich, Technology Design and Development Department, Bremen University,
Prof. Dr. Armin Grunwald, Director of the Institute for Technology Impact Assessment and System Analysis (ITAS), Karlsruhe,
Prof. Dr. Harald Heinrichs, Junior Professor at the Institute for Environmental Communication, Lüneburg University,
Dr. Hans Kastenholz, Technology and Society Department, EMPA, St. Gallen (Switzerland).