Nuclear power was the first big field of science and technology to be demonised in the eyes of the general public. During the its image was transformed from a source of clean cheap energy for the future to a dirty and dangerous creation of the military-industrial complex.
Then came the genetic manipulation of crops and food. GM had a much shorter honeymoon period than nuclear power, when people were dazzled by the potential for wonderful new crops that would taste better, last longer and resist drought and disease more effectively than conventional varieties. In the however, the “Frankenstein food” tag got stuck to the technology – at least in Europe. It was seen as potentially hazardous to human health, a threat to the environment as a source of super-weeds, and offering benefits to big ag-bio businesses but not to ordinary consumers.
Now people are beginning to ask whether nanotechnology will suffer a similar fate. As Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre, points out, the ingredients are there: a radically new area of science with huge potential but lending itself to scare stories, ranging from self-replicating “grey goo” taking over the world to more subtle threats of environmental pollution from toxic nanoparticles. There are several anti-technology pressure groups waiting to pounce.
Whether nanotech actually becomes the next GM will depend more than anything on the attitudes of scientists in the field – and whether they have learned from the nuclear and GM debacles. The lessons include:
• Don’t be secretive.
• Talk about the nanotech’s benefits, in clear non-technical language, without hyping it up.
• Mention the risks too – don’t leave these to your opponents.
• Don’t flee when nanotech hits the headlines – engage in debate about risks and benefits.
Clive Cookson spoke at the x-change on 27 April at the Dana Centre.