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Grueling nanotechnology policy interview pays off

The nanotechnology project over at The Wilson Center sent Steffen Foss Hansen, a PhD candidate visiting from his university in Denmark, here to Foresight to interview me for a policy project they are doing on nanotech regulation. Normally these kinds of things don’t seem very useful, but I have to make an exception for this process.

We met for two hours, during which the process drew out from me my underlying model of how nanotech regulation should be optimized, including what factors we should try to minimize or maximize, and any underlying principles. I had to critique various proposals now on the table, and was able to add a new one not on the standard list. I was able to explain why I thought many of the proposed regulatory regimes would not work well, or in some cases, would not work at all.

The process had its flaws, as do all such things, but this one allowed me to critique that as well.

The payoff? At the end, I was presented with a graphical representation of my recommendations, showing how well I thought the various policy approaches would work. I could then test how these changed as I tweaked my various weighing factors. It was both fun and easy to understand.

The process itself was rather grueling, especially at first, since it requires detailed quantification of many ideas we normally leave rather vague. But that’s why it can produce the graphic at the end. (Our doing this over breakfast, which means starting on an empty stomach, didn’t help. After a while, with some calories and caffeine, it got easier.)

They have all this on a laptop, and Steffen said the software (I think) is open source, so presumably one could tweak the whole thing. Here’s how he described it:

MultiCriteria Mapping was developed by Professor Andy Stirling at the University of Sussex, UK and provides a structured way to explore which criteria different stakeholders use when they compare different policy options and it establishes a dialogue in order to understand why some options are preferred and why some are seen as unacceptable.

As I say, normally these things seem pretty useless, but this one was an exception, at least from my perspective. And it only took two hours — from me. It took two days of travel for poor Steffen, since evidently he was required to do this in person.

Good job, and thanks for breakfast, Steffen! —Christine

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