June 17, 2005: Report From Cheltenham Science Festival

Attracted by the brochure featuring pin badges and pictures of Che Guevara with the words ‘green revolutionary’, and intrigued by the list of sponsors including Pfizer, QinetiQ and the Daily Telegraph, Corporate Watch made a visit this week to the Cheltenham Festival of Science.

The crowd at the festival was an amusing mix of elbow-height children in brightly coloured school sweatshirts and ageing white men in chinos with their floral printed wives. The two factions colonised different areas of the venue. The children occupied the central hall where they amused themselves with hands on activities such as pushing a rubber baby out of a rubber womb through splayed rubber legs, chatting to Oscar, the friendly Pfizer robot and participating in an experiment trying to assess whether toast is more likely to land butter side up or down depending on whether you are a boy or a girl. Meanwhile the adults busied themselves with talks on ‘Sex Advice to Creation’, the ‘Science of Belief’, and the representation of science in the media.

Learning about biology with Pfelicity the Pfizer scientist

The corporate sponsorship was inevitably omnipresent, particularly in the case of Pfizer who were clearly trying to target the children. As well as Oscar the robot, Pfizer was running a quiz where children had to go round the site finding Pfizer posters and identifying the science related object that appeared in each. Next to each poster was a well positioned quote about how Pfizer is contributing to the UK economy and what the company is doing about AIDS in Africa. Notably absent are figures on the amount spent on lobbying to prevent patented AIDS drugs being produced cheaply in the developing world through influencing the negotiations on international trade agreements such as the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPs) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

Radicalism the Qinetiq way

The first talk we attended was on ‘radical technologies’, sponsored by QinetiQ, the company that manifests everything that is wrong with the military industrial complex in a single PFI initiative! The word-from-the-sponsor was delivered by a grey suit, who quickly skipped over the fact that the majority of their business is in the defence industry, to talk of their developments in the field of flexible computer screens and medical technology. The talk then opened with a whistlestop tour through the inventions that have moulded today’s world, covering everything from the lavatory – the greatest invention in medical history – to the match and the fibre optic cable, all delivered by broadcaster Adam Hart-Davis. His analysis, while rooted in the orthodox view that technology is the best way to deliver solutions to human problems, was refreshing in that it showed that revolutionary technologies need not be hi-tech, since simple developments like sanitation have saved millions of lives worldwide.

Futurist Patrick Andrews then skimmed through so many of the innovations that have the momentum to change our future that it was hard to keep up. Using the image of a boulder poised to race downhill, he identified 2015-2020 as being a critical turning point, when concerns about climate change and the peaking of fossil fuel production together with breakthroughs in nano, gene and information technologies will trigger huge transformations in every facet of society. His tone was upbeat and he was excited by the prospect that we can expect to see ‘20,000 years progress in 100 years’, however he did allude to ethical concerns about new technologies and wars over water and food security.

When asked to choose between technology future and technology past the audience was split, some were attracted by the simplicity of yesteryear, and others optimistic about the possibilities in the future. But much of the audience insisted on remaining in the here and now, showing that even in an ‘establishment’ venue like the Cheltenham Festival the audience is less than convinced by the triumph of technology. As technological innovation thunders apace, its clear that the real challenge lies in how decisions about the technologies of the future are made. There were lots of platitudes about the need for public debate, including the need not to get into the same mess as the science community did over GM crops, but little idea of what meaningful public debate might look like, and certainly a complete lack of honesty abut how corporate sponsorship, particularly from a company like QinetiQ whose interests span many of the powerful technologies up for discussion, makes any process of public dialogue farsical.

It’s not big and it’s not clever!

The issue of public engagement in the decision making process was a hot topic in the Small Talk event on the breakthroughs and ‘potential dangerous ramifications’ of nanotechnology. Small Talk is an organisation running a series of events canvassing public opinion on nanotechnology around the country, with funding from the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Institution and other organisations with an interest in science communication. What links the project has with the government’s commitment to engage with the public on the issue of nanotech is unclear, but the impression was given that it operates within that, with promises that comments would be fed in to both the labs and the corridors of power.

The session was chaired by festival director and science communication poster girl Kathy Sykes, holder of the Collier Chair in the Public Understanding of Science and Technology at Bristol University, the youngest professor in her field, and presenter of the BBC’s Rough Science. Sykes has made quite an issue out of the governance of science and technology. In an Independent interview she said ‘I’m passionate about sharing information with the public. Foot and mouth and the GM debate have rocked people’s confidence in who they can trust, and it feels like a crucial time for us to develop mechanisms for involving them in the ethical decisions we’re making. Scientists can stand up and enthuse about their work but it’s really important that they question it, too. We have to be prepared to change our minds.’

While the organisers had made a big deal out of the participatory nature of the event, and despite Sykes’s enthusiastic chairing, the format was the usual short presentations from expert speakers and questions from the floor, with additional electronic voting by the audience on a series of questions about the ethics of nanotech. The panel consisted of of two nanoscientists and a social scientist; George Smith, Head of Oxford University’s materials department and chairman and founder of Oxford nanoScience, a company working in atom scale microscopy, owned by Polaron plc, physicist Terry McMaster of the University of Bristol, and Rob Doubleday a social scientist in the unique position of working within nanotechnology laboratories on the governance of new technologies.

The panel briefly outlined what nanotechnology is, what applications might stem from it (including faster more powerful computers and ‘smart’ drug delivery systems) and some of the concerns that the technology raises. The more sci-fi fears around self replicating nano-bots were quickly allayed and discussion focused instead on real world impacts. Both the panel and the audience shared concerns about the toxicity of nano-particles, nanotech’s capacity for increasing surveillance, and the potential the technology has to exacerbate rather than eliminate global technological and economic divides. The debate was good, if very short, and had there been more time perhaps might even have addressed the ‘elephant in the corner’ issue of who owns, control and stands to profit from this technology. The panellists were encouragingly honest abut what they saw as the problems with the technologies and keen to open up a dialogue They saw themselves as pushing the bounds of human curiosity and knowledge, rather than being instrumental in developing the technologies of corporate power and control. As individuals they were concerned about societal impacts and angered by the governments failure to regulate on the issue of toxicity, which they saw as a major concern. The fact that the debate is not yet polarised, as the GM crops debate was, means the scientists, if not their corporate funders, are open ethical questions.

The government has made an ill-defined commitment to engage in public debate on nanotechnology. It remains to be seen what weight the outcomes of public engagement exercises such as today’s will be given against the governments current priority to begin reaping the commercial gains generated by nanotechnology. It was also clear that, even if there were to be effective public debate in the UK, there is a major issue around who is empowered to participate in this debate. Will it be the self selected audiences at events like the Cheltenham Festival? Considering that the poor are the least able to ride the wave of technological change, and particularly in view of the fact that so many Southern economies are dependent on the natural resources that new nano materials see to replace, how will people in the global South be able to contribute?