Brussels, 11 Dec 2003
A lack of definition, specific aims and containment were all pinpointed as reasons for public mistrust of nanotechnology by speakers at the EuroNanoForum in Trieste, Italy, on 10 December.
Lobby groups critical of nanotechnology have already formed, and horror stories in the media about nano-robots getting inside human beings and taking over the world have not helped nanotechnology enthusiasts to argue their case.
'The average person is still trying to keep up with their role as measurer of all things and guardian of the world,' said Alfred Nordmann, from the University of South Carolina in the US. He added that nanotechnology has been talked up by scientists and non-scientists alike, who are unable to say what will be possible in the future.
Unlike other technologies, 'nanotechnology is not geared towards well-defined social goals. It also seems to promise everything, but nothing in particular,' said Professor Nordmann. Promises include an end to all pain and suffering, and computer-like access to information through a chip implanted in the brain.
The lack of specificity can be explained by the fact that nanotechnology can be applied to many scientific fields, from biotechnology to materials science and information technology. Any single explanation of the potential of nanotechnology therefore becomes problematic.
For this reason, one should begin to talk about nanotechnologies, and not nanotechnology, agreed a number of speakers. And because there is more than one nanotechnology, there is more than one ethical implication, said Göran Hermeren, Professor of medical ethics at Sweden's Lund University. Accepting that the impacts of each nanotechnology will be different can help the public to assess the likely risks, he added, as could orienting discussions on nanotechnology towards political and social issues.
While ignorance is seen by many as the reason for public concern, Bryan Wynne from Lancaster University in the UK rejected this argument: 'Public ignorance is not the cause of mistrust and scepticism, this has been proved by Eurobarometer surveys. The cause is what as seen as a denial by scientists of scientific ignorance.' The novel nature of nanotechnology means that there are many knowledge gaps, and the 'well-meaning but mistaken behaviour of institutions involved in nanotechnology' leads to doubts, elaborated Professor Wynne.
Trust can also be lost when the results of risk evaluation assessments are not consistent. This is a danger, as different countries and sections of society evaluate risk differently. When conclusions vary, the 'illusion of objective risk assessment is lost,' said Professor Hermeren.
While it is not unusual to hear of transparency being the key to societal understanding and acceptance of scientific research, Professor Hermeren stopped short of calling for this, saying that the passing on of all information to the public would lead to a situation where making a decision became impossible. 'The public should be told enough so that additional information would make no difference to their decisions. The idea is saturation,' he said.
The session on 'societal aspects and communication' was concluded by Mihail Roco, coordinator of the US national nanotechnology initiative. He regretted the often polarised debate, particularly in the media, which is dominated by those with little knowledge. He therefore called for those with the knowledge to make their voices heard, and to encourage others to speak out.
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