A Very, Very Small Opportunity

Over the last few decades, scientists have developed tools that allow them to see and manipulate matter at an atomic scale, down to a nanometer (that’s around one eighty-thousandth the width of a human hair). Nano is an invisible technology with big impacts that almost nobody is talking about; bring manufacturing down to a nanoscale and you have the makings of the next industrial revolution.

Government and industry are betting that nanotechnology will allow us to create new properties from old matter, making materials stronger and lighter, for instance, and even create whole new forms of matter. If you talk with investors, they will tell you that nano is the next big thing.

By 2014, nanotechnology is expected to account for over $1.4 trillion of global economic production. Like most technological revolutions, this one will have some downsides. Animal studies have shown that nanoparticles can enter the bloodstream, cross the blood-brain barrier, and damage tissue and DNA — reasons for concern, and for more research.

Given the size of the global investment, possible risks, and what’s at stake for our lives, our economy, and the environment, you might ask: “Shouldn’t we be having a conversation about this technology?” Yet recent surveys have shown that 70 to 80 percent of Americans have heard “nothing” or “very little” about nanotech, despite its potentially transformative effects on medicine, agriculture, computation, defense, and energy production.

This is nothing new. When was the last time the government asked you how to spend your taxes on science? That didn’t happen with nuclear power, genetics, or agricultural biotechnology. For people who lived through the biotech revolution, nanotech is a flashback: the collision of rapidly advancing technology with lagging public understanding, which could scuttle billions of dollars in public and private sector investment in nanotech and jeopardize some real breakthroughs, like better treatments for cancer and far cheaper solar energy.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In nanotechnology we find an unprecedented opportunity to do things differently, to develop a social contract between the public and the scientific community that is built on openness and trust. And that begins with a conversation.

For the past two years, a number of surveys and focus groups have been conducted around public attitudes toward nanotechnology. When given some balanced background material on nanotechnology and its potential benefits and risks, few people in the U.S. want to shut down scientific progress. But most do not trust industry to self-regulate. They want effective oversight, more disclosure and transparency, premarket testing, and testing done by independent, third parties — all rational expectations for a new science with some inherent risks. These are expectations that could form the foundation for a new social contract between society and science that helps define mechanisms for oversight, industry disclosure, better risk research, and public consultation.

Movement in this direction is starting at a community level. Berkeley, California, recently passed the world’s first nanotechnology ordinance, requiring nanotech firms within city limits to detail what they are producing and what they know about its risks; Cambridge, Massachusetts, may do the same. NGOs are asking valid questions about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology, and media coverage is finally expanding beyond the science journals. If we are on the cusp of the next industrial revolution, we need a public conversation about our goals. Nano may be the small technology that creates that large opportunity.

David Rejeski is the director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.