Promising, contesting and abandoning nanotechnology: dynamics of unrealised promises, expectations, and engagement with nanotechnology in the Australian context
AuthorMcGrail, Stephen Daniel
AffiliationArts, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies
Document TypeMasters Advanced Seminar & Shorter thesis
CitationsMcGrail, S. D. (2011). Promising, contesting and abandoning nanotechnology: dynamics of unrealised promises, expectations, and engagement with nanotechnology in the Australian context. Masters Advanced Seminar & Shorter thesis, Arts, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, The University of Melbourne.
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2011 Stephen Daniel McGrail
Over the last two decades ‘nanotechnology’, a term applied to both scientific research and disparate new and emerging technologies, has become an important focus of science policy and controversy. Its emergence has been marked by hyperbolic expectations of breakthroughs and general prominence of representations of the future (e.g. speculative visions). The purpose of this study was to assess the evolving trajectory and dynamics of nanotechnology in Australia, with a focus on these future-oriented aspects and the promising of new technological options. Additional aims were to investigate the associated social shaping, i.e. taking place ‘upstream’, and disputes about nanotechnology development. An interdisciplinary approach was used drawing primarily on literature from science and technology studies (STS) on relevant socio-technical dynamics (such as the role of expectations in and about science and technology) and ‘science and society’, as well as environmental politics and innovation studies. Relevant data was primarily gained through anonymous interviews with 30 ‘opinion leaders’ from relevant sectors (i.e. research community, industry and research commercialisation, public sector, and civil society). This data was combined with publicly-available information on nanotechnology activities and investment. This research shows – in contrast to most reports and analysis – that a significant weakening of nanotechnology expectations and decline in commercialisation activity has emerged. Expectations and assessments of nanotechnology by proponents and opponents also sharply diverge in relation to its potential roles in addressing environmental problems, such as climate change, and other sustainability issues. In this way, responses to nanotechnology have in-part been shaped by environmental discourses, which influence the framing of these problems and associated desired solutions by engaged actors and consideration of technological risks. Also identified are pressures that led to overpromising which contributed to problematic socio-political dynamics hindering efforts to realise these promises. The identified trajectory and dynamics: support STS research theorising the governance of technology by expectations (a ‘de facto’ form, i.e. extending beyond formal policy/regulatory interventions); is consistent with recent STS research that has identified the increasing importance of broader ‘innovation governance’ aimed at more purposeful, socially-agreed technological choices and innovation trajectories; and, indicates how, and in part why, the Federal Government’s ‘responsible development’ of nanotechnology objectives have not been achieved to-date. The identified drivers of controversy are also likely to lead to future disputes in additional emerging areas of science and technology (e.g. synthetic biology).
Keywordsnanotechnology; expectation dynamics; technoscientific controversy; emerging technologies; Australia
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