Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Dreaming of a Nanotech Christmas

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies had a web cast today discussing what persuades the public to buy (or not buy) nanotech products. Some thoughts:

Steven Currall (Professor in the Faculty of Engineering Sciences at University College London) asked the salient question "is the public obsessed with risk?" Drawing on a paper that appears n the December 2006 issue of Nature Nanotechnology, he concludes "no." People, he says, consider both risks as well as benefits when buying "nanotech products" (makes sense to me).

Neal Lane (former Presidential Science Advisor to Clinton) also spoke on policy implications re: nano. He asked whether nano's potential would be lost amidst the welter of concerns about risk and the failure to educate/engage the public. He made the case that the public is currently neutral about nano and only needs more information to reach a (presumably) positive conclusion.

A few thoughts - while I tuned in late (the web page wouldn't load properly for some reason), I heard no reference to the work (or the existence) at either the CNS-UCSB or its counterpart at ASU. Although there were calls for a better and more coordinated national strategy to deal with EHS issues, I found this ironic given that neither of the two national centers founded to deal with societal implications were referred to.

Finally, I recalled that, about a year ago, a colleague at a conference asked me if all this interest in nano-and-society wasn't part of an effort to create future nano-consumers. At the time, I thought this was a cynical interpretation. Sure, this might be part of the motivation. However, what I heard in this web cast is encouraging me to think about this more seriously. How much of this focus on EHS is driven by concerns high up in the federal government that some event - even a bogus (i.e. no-nano) event - might, as Lane put it, derail "nano's potential to revolutionize all other technologies"?


  1. I do not think that the average American is enough of a technophile to buy something just because it has the word nano slapped on it. Since I view nanotechnology as a form of branding, I do not think that a tragedy caused by a faux nano product would hamper science, but rather it would require that future nano products be marketed as something else.

  2. I don't usually find the general comparisons between nanotechnology and GMO to be all that useful - but your final question - one that is echoed in numerous policy discussions - does seem to be grounded in the GMO-as-a-risk framework. Policy-makers, nano-advocates, and other relevant parties certainly have a stake in preventing nano from becoming another GMO debacle.

    If nano is to instigate a revolution-- and perhaps drive a US high tech economy - then public perceptions of nano probably need to be cultivated in specific ways... perhaps that's too dogmatic, though... perhaps public perceptions just need to managed so that they don't go sour.