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Swallowed by ‘grey goo’

By Julian Cribb - posted Tuesday, 2 May 2006

Having earnestly resisted the best endeavours of the scientific community to make them eat herbicide-ready bread, is the Australian public turning a similarly jaundiced eye on nanotechnology?

Molecule-for-molecule there are few more exciting scientific fields today, and the rush by universities and research institutions to set up shiny new nanocentres and nanoteams has been one of the most positive episodes in recent Australian research investment. The sky is the limit - especially when you consider the potential of quantum computing, nanosensors, nanobots, nanobio and the like.

The question is, will the nanobrigade make the same fundamental error as the biobrigade? Will they do magnificent science, only to see it rejected, stalled and bagged by the community? Will the huge investment fail to deliver because we overlooked the most basic issue - whether or not people want it?


Not long ago, on attending a conference of gene jockeys, I was rather shocked to discover that most of them had vacated the field of gene modification research and were now focusing largely on gene markers. Clearly, a market reaction on the part of scientists (and their financial backers) to the market reaction on the part of consumers and farmers.

This outcome was probably totally unnecessary, in view of early public opinion research suggesting most consumers would eat GM food, provided it was safe and had a clear benefit to them (as opposed to some big foreign chemical firm). Unfortunately, most of the early trans-genes used were to the benefit of the big corporations and researchers, not the little consumers.

By backing the wrong genetic horse, science set back public acceptance of GM food at least a decade, maybe two or three. And blew millions. Today there are signs the nanofolk are heading down the same track.

Scientists often bewail the lack of scientific literacy in the community, but seldom appreciate the corollary - a more scientifically literate public is less trusting, more informed and asks harder questions. This is a point made by the former UK Chief Scientist, Bob May: if you teach ‘em more science, they become more like scientists - skeptical. If we want a knowledge society, that’s something science needs to get its head around.

Nanotech is starting with several big handicaps. First, it is highly complex and most people have only the vaguest idea what it is about. Much of the language is opaque and alienating.

Second, there are unanswered questions about the safety of (quantum) nano devices and how they will interact with living tissue.


Third, there has been a lot of hype about wonderful new applications - and this makes the public nervous about the downsides they are not being told about. In other words, the communication has so far been one-sided and unbalanced.

Fourth, major investors include defence establishments who clearly hope it will deliver more efficient means to make war. In other words, like nuclear science, harmful applications of nanotech are already in contemplation - and the public knows this.

Fifth, quantum computers and nanobots-nanosensors, once invented, will have undreamed-of power to amass data on every person living in an advanced society and to observe, store and analyse all their actions. This may become the gravest infringement of personal liberty in history.
As with GM, while there are numerous benefits to industry there are, so far, few consumer benefits on offer (except maybe sunscreen and self-cleaning paint!). Nanotech has not made a very good fist of answering the public’s question: “What’s in it for me?”

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Article edited by Shevaune Espinos.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

First published in The Australian on April 21, 2006.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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