Nanotechnology has been one of the most exciting frontiers of science and technology for the last ten to 15 years. Through new materials chemistry and new molecular building blocks it can contribute to using less ressources in a sustainable manner, to cut the consumption of fuels and energy. In medicine nanotechnology opens up new roads towards less invasive therapies or to treatments even of diseases that have defied all attempts at curing them until now.
Funding agencies and industry have realized this potential early on and invested approximately 15 billion dollars in nanotechnology research in the past decade. Especially for industrial countries like Germany that lack notable physical ressources nanotechnologies offer new economic opportunities.
Yet at the same time in the public the notion has spread that nanomaterials might be inherently toxic and unsafe, while the general understanding of what nanotechnology actually is about and could achieve still lags behind.
This gap in the potential and the reception of nanotechnology can partly be attributed to the media coverage, partly to the nanoscience community itself. Only in recent years journalists have begun to report about nanotechnology in an increasingly informative way. On the other hand the majority of the nanoscience community has long refrained from stressing the nano aspect of its work because it was seen as an integral part of engineering or chemistry. However, communicating to the public via the media is indispensable. Blogging by scientists themselves could serve as a kind of direct communication to the public but is not yet broadly established.
There are two important aspects in communicating nanotechnology. One is to avoid big claims about its potential as they have been made in the past, thereby burdening the field with huge expectations. Then again scientists should be aware not to overstress the proceedings of academic science itself because society cares most about what impact science – in this case: nanotechnology – will have on society itself. So nanoscientists should make clear how their work can contribute to solving problems.
That doesn’t mean nanotechnologies and nanoscience should be conveyed directly in terms of, say, the United Nations Millennium Goals or even put to their exclusive service. Science still needs a reasonable degree of freedom of research which is a precondition to set free the creativity needed.
However, there are two factors potentially hampering it. Overfunding can result in a kind of complacency. And the current strongly regulated European university system puts constraints on students and young researchers to explore new territory that could lead to new discoveries in nanoscience. Both in turn entail the risk that too many research projects follow mainstream topics.
Moreover, if nanotechnology is to succeed it should extend its reach to a wider portion of society so that more people can apply it. Through downsizing which is one of the main characteristics of nanotechnology analytics for instance could become cheaper and therefore more widely available to the economy. That could significantly help realizing the potential of nanotechnologies and nanoscience.
Last but not least the nano research community should reflect on its developments. Though philosophy in general is viewed with a reasonable scepticism by scientists, questions of ethics constantly arise out of their work. Adressed only retroactively they can alienate both young researchers who might feel they have not acted responsibly and the public. So far the risks being associated with nanomaterials and nanoproducts pertain only to the production process where workers could be exposed to them. Nevertheless it is important to develop risk avoidance strategies now, based on a comprehensive risk dialogue with science and society.
Niels Boeing, freelance journalist for ZEIT Wissen