The term governance in the context of emerging technologies describes the ways in which the research, development, application and use of a technology is developed, steered and controlled. Put simply, the purpose of governance is to anticipate and realise future developments, ensure safety and sustainability, and generate trust and confidence.
As governance involves the consideration of many different views, interests, values and norms, creating a complex structure, some general principles have to be set up to support a governance process (Aven & Renn, 2010). In 2001, the European Commission published a White Paper describing a number of principles which underpin good governance:
These principles may be seen as idealistic and compliance may be difficult to achieve in practice by those who carry out the different steps of the governance process. One of the challenges is to define more pragmatic principles of good governance and to find a balance between taking measures which are proportionate to achievable objectives.
Governance of nanotechnology is considered to be essential for realising economic growth and societal benefits, protecting public health and the environment, and supporting global collaboration and progress (Roco et al., 2011). Given the scientific uncertainty associated with nanomaterials and its multi-disciplinary and cross-cutting nature, nanotechnology is seen to present new challenges for governance. Key challenges facing nanotechnology governance include: the pace of nanotechnology development; the diversity of materials and applications; knowledge uncertainties specifically in relation to environmental health and safety (EHS) concerns and ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI); the adequacy of existing procedures; international harmonisation of approaches; and awareness and perception of nanotechnology along the value chain.
It is widely recognised that an effective and integrated governance approach must facilitate the realisation of benefits, whilst at the same time limiting the potential risks posed and remaining sensitive to public concerns and changes nanotechnologies may induce (Widmer et al., 2010). Over the past decade, an international policy debate has emerged concerning appropriate mechanisms for the governance and regulation of nanotechnologies, with options ranging from requirements for an extension of existing regulatory frameworks, to ‘softer’ approaches such as codes of conduct, reporting schemes, and standardisation which may serve as a stop-gap in the absence of proper risk assessment and classical regulatory monitoring. Overall though, much greater recognition and specificity is being given to EHS and ELSI aspects in governance considerations (Roco et al., 2011). It is widely foreseen that effective governance will require a high level of cooperation, coordination and communication between various institutions and stakeholders, including those who develop, manufacture, market and regulate nano-enabled products, as well as representatives of civil society, in order to promote a proactive and adaptive process (Widmer et al., 2010).
A number of governance frameworks have been published and applied in the context of nanotechnology, including:
Whilst these frameworks facilitate several desirable attributes for an optimal governance framework, there remains some question as to whether these frameworks - in their current form - provide sufficient means/detail for effective implementation.
Additional publications of relevance to nanotechnology governance include:
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