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Nanotech Needs a Hard Sell, Plus Education

Startling advances are being made in the emerging field of nanotechnology. For example, Naomi Halas and Jennifer West of Rice University in Houston recently announced that their nanoshells had proven effective at eradicating tumors in lab animals1; researchers at Harvard University reported creating hybrid nanowires that could be linked to conventional silicon circuits2; and government scientists at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago documented how they had engineered nanoparticles capable o

By | August 30, 2004

Startling advances are being made in the emerging field of nanotechnology. For example, Naomi Halas and Jennifer West of Rice University in Houston recently announced that their nanoshells had proven effective at eradicating tumors in lab animals1; researchers at Harvard University reported creating hybrid nanowires that could be linked to conventional silicon circuits2; and government scientists at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago documented how they had engineered nanoparticles capable of cleaning buildings exposed to radioactive materials.3

Possible Approaches To Dialogue

• Participatory and/or constructive technology assessment with stakeholders, particularly that which takes account of the dynamic interrelations between society and the development of nanotechnologies (see, for example, Rip et al., 1995).

• Scenario analysis with stakeholders to identify significant uncertainties that might emerge with nanotechnologies For example, the GM 'shocks and surprises' seminar organized by the Cabinet Office (2003).

• Direct public engagement such as citizen juries or panels for identifying at an early stage broad 'desired futures' for nano-technologies, significant ethical concerns, or the acceptability of key applications and options. The quality of scientific and other input to such public engagement activities is critical to their success.

• Decision analytic methods draw upon more formal approaches for framing problems, as well as for identifying preferred options and their attributes (see, for example, Stirling and Mayer 1999; Arvai et al., 2001).

• Multistage methods combining different approaches to framing, option appraisal, and final choice in a sequence of linked activities, often with different groups of stakeholders and the public at various stages (see, for example, Renn, 1999).

• Research into public attitudes, both qualitative and quantitative, to generate good quality 'social intelligence' (Grove White et al., 2000) about nanotechnologies and public concerns.

(From the Royal Society, " Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties,")

These advances are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. From medicine and energy to material science and prevention of bioterrorism, nanotechnology developments are occurring at a rate faster than even the field's most optimistic proponents predicted only a few years ago, with electronics and opto-electronics being the hottest fields.4

As significant as these recent advances are, two other seemingly minor developments, when combined, might have an even greater effect on the field. The first was an open letter published by Prince Charles of the United Kingdom in the British newspaper, The Independent, on July 11; the second is a yet-to-be-published report from researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh.5

Prince Charles' letter raised the specter of nanotechnology creating a thalidomide-type disaster. (The sedative was prescribed to women in Europe in the late 1950s and early 1960s; it was later found to have caused thousands of serious malformations in infants.) Critics of the Prince were quick to dismiss him as a nonscientist dabbling in a complex field of which he knows little about.

This criticism was misplaced on two counts. First, Charles raised legitimate concerns about how the nanoscale materials may react with and accumulate in the environment and the human body. The Royal Society's recently released report entitled "Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties" raises similar concerns.6 Second, regardless of his scientific credentials, Prince Charles has a large "bully-pulpit." Proponents of the field, rather than attempting to discredit him, would be better served by directing their skills and energy at educating the public about the benefits of nanotechnology.

Failure to address both issues may result in the public's generally positive feeling about nanotechnology quickly fading, to the detriment of future progress. The NCSU study revealed that "despite lacking concrete knowledge about nanotechnology, most Americans hold a generally positive view" of nanotechnology. A closer examination of the study, however, found that the term "most" represented a meager plurality: Only 40% of the public believed that the benefits outweigh the risks. A near equal number (38%) held that the benefits and costs are equal, while 22% had a negative view of the field. Prince Charles and others describe nanotechnology as the "asbestos of the 21st century," and they propagate the "grey-goo" scenario of Michael Crichton's latest novel, Prey, as though it were scientific gospel. If these arguments gain traction with the public, the general goodwill the field currently enjoys will quickly erode.

The answer to these threats can be found in the scientific community. Proponents of nanotechnology must accept as legitimate the concerns about the unknown consequences of nanoparticles and nanomaterials on the environment and human health and work to find the answers. A good many researchers, funded with a healthy dose of government money, are doing precisely this.

We live in an age where sound bites shape popular culture and public policy. The scientific community needs to counter sloganeering with substance. It must get more involved in educating the public and public policy makers, for example, by using approaches listed in the box below.

Science is a powerful driver of societal progress. But how quickly society realizes the benefits from various scientific advances is often less a question of the science itself and more a question of how willingly the nonscientific community embraces such advances. This means that the scientist's job does not end with discovery; it must continue until all questions and concerns are satisfactorily addressed and the discovery is employed to the benefit of humanity.

Jack Uldrich jack@nanoveritas.com is the president of The NanoVeritas Group, Minneapolis, and the author of The Next Big Thing is Really Small: How Nanotechnology Will Change the Future of Your Business (Crown Business, 2003).

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