CALL US ON: +44 (0) 131 449 8000
CALL US ON: +44 (0) 131 449 8000


Governance of emerging technologies

Governance _200-150The 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.

Principles of governance

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:

  • Openness: Institutions responsible for governance should work in an open manner.
  • Participation: Inclusion of stakeholders and the affected and interested public is set as a crucial task of governance.
  • Accountability: Roles and responsibilities of the different actors in the governance process have to be made clear.
  • Effectiveness: Governance policies have to be effective and timely, have to deliver what is needed on the basis of clear objectives, an evaluation of future impact and, where available, of past experience.
  • Coherence: Policies and actions have to be coherent and easily understood.
  • Proportionality and Subsidiarity: Throughout the whole governance process, the choice of the level at which the action is taken and the selection of the instruments used must be considered in the proportion to the objectives pursued.

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

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).

Published governance frameworks and resources

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:

For further information and professional services which can support the responsible development, governance and compliance of nanotechnology products, please visit our Services pages.