Before you build that nanobot...

January 28, 2005

A social scientist is posing awkward questions on behalf of the public at Cambridge's new centre for nanoresearch. Jon Turney joins him in the corner

Cambridge University's new nanoscience centre is a site for inventing possible futures, a place where new technologies of exquisite refinement and immense power are supposed to flow from the worldwide effort to engineer matter on atomic scales.

Intriguing, then, that in a corner of the centre's open-plan workspace, observing the goings-on, sits not a polymer chemist, a designer of atomic force microscopes or a quantum physicist, but a sociologist. His job: to help figure out how non-scientists might be involved in deciding what this new wave in technology can do for us and how it might be managed.

Rob Doubleday has two years, at least, to put flesh on the bones of a job description influenced by the recent Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering report on nanoscience and nanotechnologies. Mark Welland, the director of the Cambridge-led Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration in Nanotechnology, was a member of the group that produced the report, and he decided to act on the recommendation that public debate should be developed while the technology was still in its infancy.

Doubleday, who trained as a chemist before switching to the social sciences, maintains calm at a time when everyone seems rather excitable.

You can see the temptation to hype new technology. From those magnificent flying men to the designers of the iPod, you don't do this stuff unless you think it is cool. Lately, though, optimistic tales about new technological wonders prompt an equal and opposite reaction. Nanotechnology, the subject of wild predictions of both unlimited control over matter and apocalyptic fears, is the latest example. We'll all live for ever thanks to the nanobots patrolling our organs and fixing them from the inside. But the price of immortality will be eternal vigilance against the grey goo, an unstoppable tide of self-reproducing devices engulfing the world.

Between these extremes of imagination are lots of researchers trying to do less dramatic but nonetheless important things in the realm of the very small - a nanometre is one thousand millionth of a metre and spans just a handful of atoms. They are joined by companies hoping for profits from applications marvellous and mundane. And they are cheered on by governments eager to secure a share in the next big thing.

But behind the cheers, the Royal Society review group was alarmed by recent tussles over genetically modified foods. People no longer accept assurances that new technology is good. One way to take the heat out of the polarised arguments might be to take public engagement "upstream". As the policy think-tank Demos emphasised recently, this is about more than risk analysis. The assumptions of nanoscientists, Demos says, and their visions of a future ultra-high-tech society, "need to be brought to the surface and opened up to public debate".

But how? Six months into the job, Doubleday admits that he does not have all the answers. He speaks carefully, and as his comments unfold, it becomes apparent that the job is not just about shaping debate on a controversial set of technologies. The value of the social sciences in the eyes of natural scientists and governments is also up for grabs. If the Cambridge experiment is seen as a success, it will help foster a multidisciplinary discussion about a whole complex of problems that will loom large in political debate for decades - as scary applications of genetics, neuroscience and computing proliferate alongside the fruits of the nano-labourers. At the same time, Doubleday is cautious about the social sciences simply becoming the handmaiden of technological innovation, "easing acceptance of the next big thing after GM". He and Welland both see his work as an experiment, but as Doubleday says, it is going ahead when "governments are looking to the social sciences to provide some kind of solution to a perceived crisis of legitimacy in how new technologies are validated and regulated".

Getting down to specifics is a challenge, though, partly because there are lots of things that might help. Doubleday's to-do list already includes training PhD students, translating public concerns into language that scientists can relate to, bringing about a broader public discussion in a format still to be designed and tracking European developments along the same lines. And he knows he must keep his academic perspective on the whole enterprise, and what it means.

There is also the small matter of deciding what exactly we are all going to discuss when we talk about nanoscience and nanotechnology - or (as the Royal Society insists) nanotechnologies. Nanobots and grey goo aside, the talk is of smart energy conversion, designer drugs and intelligent materials. But most researchers, including the 100-strong Cambridge collection, are still working on preliminaries. A set of technologies that depends on the placement of specific individual atoms will require extraordinary refinements in technique. We know it can be done because living cells do it all day long. Emulating their feats, however, is another matter.

So the essence of nanotech can be elusive. And it is hard to think about making potential social and ethical impacts visible when many projects are seeking proofs of principle or are just trying to improve instrumentation so that if we do create nanostructures we can see what we have built. The list of projects in Cambridge includes experiments with new polymers, techniques for drawing unimaginably small electronic circuitry on suitable materials, and studies of the properties of DNA and proteins and how they might be modified. There are no nanobots in sight any time soon, and there is good reason to believe that the physics of the nanoworld will keep it that way. But Doubleday stresses that the whole enterprise growing under the nano-label is driven by its technological potential. Like much work in the life sciences, this is a research area where old distinctions between science and technology, or basic and applied research, are dissolved. All the more vital, then, to give voice to the people who will have to live with the results.

This brings Doubleday to the example of a medical sensing project that has been going well. Scientists wanted to capture data from parts of the body existing sensors cannot reach. But when it was pointed out that the findings, like all medical information, might need to be protected from prying eyes, they began to think about incorporating encryption into the basic design.

Maybe this is how it will go. Not a root-and-branch challenge to a whole set of technologies, but a project-by-project analysis of how to make small improvements early on and prevent a heap of trouble later. If GM foods are anything to go by, that won't stop some applications being controversial.

But if they have been shaped from the start by public input, there may be less suspicion about where scientists are taking us. Demos commends the Royal Society for identifying two key questions: who controls use of nanotechnologies, and who benefits? It then chides scientists for not grappling with these questions. The sociologist in the corner probably cannot answer them, either. But he plans to make sure that the scientists know they are being asked.

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