Looking back in order to move forward – lessons from nanotechnology

August 18th, 2020

A new report documents CSIRO's contributions to shaping risk governance practices for nanotechnology R&D in Australia and internationally.

Yuwan Malakar

Transparent of graphene application (Credit: iStock.com/BONNINSTUDIO)


A new CSIRO report, Risk Governance of Nanotechnology in Australia: Developing responsible science and technology, documents CSIRO’s contributions to shaping risk governance practices for nanotechnology R&D in Australia and internationally. As one of the first applied case studies undertaken in the Responsible Innovation FSP, a primary goal was also to identify how experience with nanotechnology R&D may prove instructive for managing potential risks associated with other new, emerging and potentially disruptive technologies.

A risk governance approach was adopted in this research, which acknowledges that decision-making related to the risks and benefits of any technology is a multi-actor and non-linear process. The risk governance framework used in the study was comprised of the five components of: risk assessment; risk management; risk communication; inclusion; and, reflection. The research drew on a systematic review of CSIRO authored scientific journal articles on nanotechnology and risk, and interviews with CSIRO scientists who were working or had worked in this domain to understand their experiences and perspectives in relation to risk governance practices. Some of the key findings that emerged include:

  • Collaboration was key to secure resourcing to respond to new and emerging challenges relating to nanotechnology. More importantly, the engagement of government officials, scientists from multiple disciplines, the general public, and industry was a critical strategy to addressing those challenges.
  • As nanotechnology was continuously evolving, it was also important to continually review and reflect upon risk-related decisions and make necessary changes to minimise and, where possible, mitigate identified risks.
  • CSIRO’s approach to nanotechnology risk governance was built upon the foundation of the science-public-government nexus. The role of science was to provide factual evidence, based on scientific research, to inform policymakers and industry; government to develop appropriate regulations and policies; and public to inform science and government about their concerns and priorities.

Our analysis reveals that risk governance practices in areas of emergent technology development have long been part of CSIRO’s research in the field of disruptive science and innovation. Key strengths emerged in relation to aspects of the formal practices of risk assessment, management and communication, and there was evidence of established practice in the areas of inclusion and reflection. These are aspects of responsible innovation that have underpinned science and research for decades. However, the study also highlights opportunities for some more implicit risk governance practices to be made more explicit moving forward, especially in relation to the social and ethical risks of other emerging and potentially disruptive technologies.