Make truth the target

May 2, 2003

Prince Charles must not bring his prejudice to the nanotechnology debate, writes Ian Gibson

When the Prince of Wales warned this week that nanotechnology posed potentially "enormous environmental and social risks", nanotechnology was dubbed the new genetically modified foods. The prince, who famously played a high-profile role in the GM foods debate, is meeting scientists to discuss his worries. But how do we all work to ensure that the debate surrounding nanotechnology is more full and informed than the GM foods furore?

For Prince Charles, nanotechnology represents a nightmare vision of science fiction, with a "grey goo" of millions of molecular robots reproducing themselves and annihilating life on earth. But for more than 300 university departments worldwide, nanotechnology is the science of materials and instruments on the scale of a billionth of a metre - the size of a few atoms or molecules. One nanometer, or a billionth of a metre, is about 1/80,000 of the diameter of a human hair.

While nanotechnology is very, very small, many scientists see it as the next big thing. Layers of material, built an atom at a time, have exciting electromagnetic properties and could become lightweight magnets or room-temperature superconductors. Fabrics with amazing strength or water-repellent properties can be built molecule by molecule, and computers are getting more powerful without getting bigger as researchers find ways of delivering more power across smaller dimensions.

This is a truly multidisciplinary area, in which materials scientists, mechanical and electrical engineers and medical researchers are forming teams with biologists, physicists and chemists to share knowledge and consider applications. Nanotechnology encompasses precision engineering as well as biomedical applications in areas as diverse as gene therapy and drug delivery. Declaring ourselves "against" nanotechnology would be the same as saying that very small devices are bad.

The technology is now in its infancy, and most applications are still decades away. But it is the future - and the possibility that science-fiction nightmares may come true - that worries people. New technologies change things and inevitably pose difficult questions. But these are issues that we must face and answer fully, not simply dismiss as either good or bad. I am very happy for any individual - no matter how mighty they may be - to examine science, but not to go into the debate with any kind of prejudice. When a future king speaks, people listen, and the prince must be careful not to give credence to scare stories. It is important that the debate is run by a consortium of scientists, ethicists, religious figures, lawyers and others, not led by a select few with a biased agenda.

Risk is the key word these days, and any serious scientist will admit that there is an element of risk in any new technology. There always has been.

But when the term is employed by some elements of the media, it has a different impact - think of the panic we have had in recent years over the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine or the growth of genetic science. All too often, science stories are taken up by some members of the press with the fervour of a religious campaign, with little understanding of the technology or the possible benefits.

Scientists have an important role to play in ensuring that the media take on a greater responsibility for scientific truth and proper open public debate, including all the doubts and uncertainties. Whether we like it or not, we live in a media-driven age. In the same way that scientists need to consider how to communicate effectively with politicians, and vice versa, they also need to think carefully about how to engage with the media and convey to the public the true essence of their work.

We have to learn from the lessons of the GM debate, where all too quickly the real issues became obscured by a fog of panic and confusion. We all have to work to avoid a culture in which a word becomes synonymous with a fear, a serious scientific debate becomes synonymous with a dimly understood nightmare. I hope the prince would agree.

Ian Gibson is chairman of the House of Commons science and technology committee.

Join the nanotechnology debate at www.thes.co.uk

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