Download Small Talk's Final Report here:
Small Talk was a three-year long collaborative project, funded through a Copus grant of £49,900, with additional support provided ‘in kind’ by partner organisations. The project looked at the benefits for the science communication community in working together on dialogue activities for an ‘upstream’ issue — nanotechnology. This report presents the findings of this project for both science communicators and policymakers.
We believe that Small Talk has been a valuable project. It has encouraged more organisations to take part in debate about nanotechnology and has helped them make use of good-practice when planning the events; it has explored the role of practitioner-led dialogue and helped us develop useful lessons for the future; it has helped a range of organisations access policymakers and provided useful evidence for policy too; most importantly, it has enabled the participating organisations to be more strategic in their approach, as well as providing the intellectual space and motivation for the partner organisations to reflect, learn and change the way we work.
During the course of the project, Small Talk has produced a wealth of resources to support organisations wishing to participate. These resources were a key tool in sharing good practice and improving the quality of our events. They include a website bringing together lessons learned and good practice guidance from a range of sources; regular e-lerts to share up to the minute lessons learned; 20 events, attended by over 1200 participants, ranging from large-scale debates at the Cheltenham Science Festival and Royal Institution to school visits by nanotechnology experts; and data-collection instruments for working with large groups. These resources have been used by organisations such as the Science Museum and the British Council, increasing the quantity, as well as the quality of dialogue activities on nanotechnology.
The project has demonstrated very clearly that there are significant benefits to be gained from working together. As well as putting in place a valuable structure for learning and reflecting, we have been able to build relationships with policymakers, which one organisation alone could not have done. These relationships have allowed us to feed into the policy process regularly throughout the project. We have presented our work to policy fora such as the Nanotechnology Engagement Group and the Nanotechnology Issues Dialgoue Group for instance. Small Talk was also highlighted in the UK Government’s response to the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering report Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties.
Importantly, Small Talk has enabled us to demonstrate that science communicators have a role to play in dialogue and that our approach produces outputs of value to policymakers, while at the same time reminding us that there are other useful communication skills that we need to continue to value, develop and use.
§ Practitioner-led dialogue provides a useful and interesting addition to the dialogue repertoire. For very practical reasons, we recognised that practitioner and academic-led dialogue will not look the same. Nevertheless, Small Talk has demonstrated that practitioners have ‘evolved’ an approach that offers many advantages over other techniques, but also works well along side them. In particular it is low cost, can reach large numbers of people and is effective at identifying the concerns and aspirations of common currency amongst the general population.
The collaborative approach of Small Talk enables ongoing learning, sharing of knowledge and good practice among disparate organisations and, by building relationships with policy-makers that individual institutions may not have time or ability to do, maximises the value to policy-makers of non-policy-sponsored dialogue initiatives
There remains a clear role and need for effective ‘information giving’ communication, according to feedback from participants and analysis of the opinions gathered. Dialogue therefore needs to be viewed as one in a full range of communication tools. Science communicators need to continue to develop this full range of skills and capacity.
Key attitudes to nanotechnology
- People's attitudes to nanotechnology are not significantly different from their attitudes to any new technology, and are generally positive
- People are not concerned about specific risks arising from the technologies themselves but, rather, about the structure of regulation that they will have to rely on to deal with any risks
- The public considers issues of safety of nanotechnologies in absolute rather than relative terms and so ‘safe’ is assumed to mean that all risks have been identified and eliminated
- There is a significant gap between the public’s perceptions of the role and boundaries of government and the reality, which could be a potential source of tension and distrust in government and governance of science if left unresolved