The government is determined to prevent nanotechnology becoming a media scare story to rival that of genetic modification, science minister David Sainsbury has told The THES.
Lord Sainsbury spoke out amid fears that nanotechnology - engineering on a minute scale - could get out of hand, with plagues of self-replicating, microscopic robots taking over the world and turning it into "grey goo".
The government has already set up an independent nanotechnology investigation by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering into whether its development raises ethical, health or safety issues not covered by existing regulation.
Lord Sainsbury said: "There wasn't, in the early days of GM, a great deal of discussion about the regulatory framework."
The new study will aim to seek the views of the public. But Lord Sainsbury stressed that it will not follow the same model as the current public debate on GM, which some have labelled a flop.
He said: "It is different from the GM debate. Focus groups will provide a direct, clear view. We aren't so concerned with assessing what everyone feels as it is early stages yet and many don't have views one way or the other."
Lord Sainsbury is dismissive of "grey-goo" theories. "There is a fairly general consensus that this is still very much in the realm of science fiction. But this needs to be confirmed by scientific opinion," he said.
The government is hoping for straightforward answers about whether more regulation is required to control nanotechnology. But it is aware that it will not be able to outline exactly how the technology will develop. "If the question is, 'What impact will it have on society over the next 50 years?', we can be absolutely certain we can't predict that," Lord Sainsbury said.
He is keen to emulate the stem-cell debate, which he sees as a success story for science communication.
He said: "That was a very sensible public debate. I think part of that is attributed to two reports on the science."
The first, by England's chief medical officer in August 2000, was on achieving medical progress with responsibility. The second was a report on stem-cell research by a House of Lords committee in February 2002.
Many scientists predict huge benefits arising from nanotechnology, including nanomachines performing surgery on humans.