A transparent and continuous European dialogue on nanotechnologies requires extending this dialogue into the public arena. NanOpinion established a (media-based) science–technology–social platform and (media and physical) outreach programmes to continuously monitor and understand consumers’ and citizens’ opinions on nanotechnologies.
The project targeted various groups, including students and teachers, but especially focused on ‘hard-to-reach’ people – those who are not interested in science, are not usual visitors to science centres or museums, or are not readers of science-related materials. To reach this group, a large number and variety of locations and events were covered (zoos, libraries, city squares, shopping malls, community centres, university campuses, festivals, sports events, art performances) at different times of the day and of the year, in different cities, areas and countries throughout Europe.
The project anticipated concerns by monitoring social media communications and providing balanced information that was not aimed at influencing people’s opinions. It encouraged reflection by conducting regular process reviews, promoting discussion about the societal impacts of emerging technologies and organising a variety of discussion and outreach activities aimed at encouraging people to think about attitudes on technology and science in general.
The project integrated new developments (e.g., labelling in cosmetics) into its materials, which were inter alia used for the school activities and provided in the repository on the project portal. In addition, policy recommendations were developed and made available to policymakers, and media partners took up actual debates (such as nanotechnology in food or medicine).
The project contributed in developing and testing outreach methodologies for public engagement in the debate on nanotechnologies. Through an extensive outreach programme, the project reached 15.000 people (in the streets) across Europe. Over 12.000 others were reached through media (including social media), school activities, opinion polls, participatory workshops, and so on.
The project also carried out policy recommendations on 1) future potentials and needs for nanotechnology education; 2) public expectations about research, regulation and social implications; and 3) future outreach and communication methodologies and tools for sustainable dialogue.
Public engagement activities for new technologies, like nanotechnologies, that aim to make a lasting impact on awareness, need to begin with relatively simple information that prompts individuals’ to become better informed. By successfully reaching out to publics who are considered hard to reach, and are thus usually not represented, NanOpinion demonstrated how social dialogue on influential, and potentially controversial, R&I trajectories could be extended beyond public elites to the public at large.