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Just six years into the projected 40-year cycle of the nanotechnology industrial era, concerns of a nanotech bubble, media hype, and overall public skepticism appear to be waning. Public and private investment in nanotechnology is heating up and efforts to build public understanding are gaining momentum.
December 15th, 2006
Public Understanding of Nanotech May Be The Most Important Enabling Tool
Just six years into the projected 40-year cycle of the nanotechnology industrial era, concerns of a nanotech bubble, media hype, and overall public skepticism appear to be waning. Public and private investment in nanotechnology is heating up and efforts to build public understanding are gaining momentum. Perhaps most importantly, early industry and government dialogue regarding regulation, potential environmental hazards and other public issues are showing a great deal of maturity from a field that is still in its formative years.
According to Lux Research, a U.S.-based firm specializing in the nanotechnology sector, 2006 might close out as the first year that, on a global basis, private nanotech investments of a projected U.S. $6 billion outstrips the projected $5 billion governments will be pouring into the Nano Economy.
That said, government funding for nanotechnology also continues to grow with more players joining the field. Until recently, public spending has largely been tracked in terms of Europe, U.S., Japan, and ROW, with Japan leading the way since 2000, followed by the U.S. and then Europe. Today Brazil, Russia, India and China, which some observers term the "BRIC" countries, are ramping up their own spending in a meaningful way.
Although dollar amount spending in the BRIC countries may be relatively lower compared to that in Japan, the U.S. and Europe, these countries could have an economic advantage in spite of their later start.
"Countries like China, India and others have significantly lower cost structures and have a good supply of highly educated technology professionals available to them," explains Sean Murdock, president of the U.S.-based NanoBusiness Alliance. "Taking these factors into account, their actual spending power could soon actually rival that of countries that are investing at higher levels."
While funding levels make it clear that the majority of all advanced research and development going forward will take place on the nanoscale, a concerted focus needs to remain on those who are ultimately paying the bills — namely taxpayers and investors.
It's vital that payback expectations be managed, that a basic public understanding of nanoscience and resulting nano-enabled technologies is realized, and that concerns about nanohazards and risks be debated factually and in the public arena.
The Apollo space program of the 1960s and 70s is an example of how quickly public support of scientific exploration can change. A recent BBC documentary on the Apollo missions reported that through the first and second moon landings, U.S. public support of the program was unflappable. However, by the third and fourth missions, the level of support plummeted with taxpayers looking to solve more tangible and immediate domestic problems such as poverty and hunger.
Ronald Sandler, assistant professor of philosophy at Boston's Northeastern University, has tracked several studies on public perceptions of nanotechnology and addresses several questions.
"Does the public understand the technical and scientific aspects of nanotechnology? The data on this so far is that the public largely does not," says professor Sandler. "Second, does the public understand that nanotechnology is likely to be the platform for the next revolution in technology and industry and therefore have significant social impact? The data on this so far is that the public largely does."
But does the public understand nanotechnology well enough to formulate fact-based, well-grounded views about nanotechnology and participate in productive discussions about nanotechnology and its impact? Can the public grasp the breadth of economic, social, ethical, and environmental issues that are associated with nanotech? In assessing these two critical questions Sandler replies, "Not yet."
Sandler does point out that the U.S. federal government is committing itself to education and outreach through the U.S. National Nanotech Initiative (NNI) and that progress is being made. Just recently, the National Science Foundation awarded a $20 million grant as part of the NNI to a consortium of leading science museums to build an informal science education network about nanotechnology. It also awarded two multi-million dollar awards to fund centers for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University and The University of California at Santa Barbara.
"Private organizations, such as citizen groups, environmental organizations, and foundations are getting up to speed on nanotechnology. This is important because many people will turn to these groups for expertise, advice, and advocacy. They do quite a lot of the work framing the public discourse," adds Sandler.
Progress is also being made across the Atlantic where, according to Del Stark, CEO of the European Nanotechnology Trade Alliance, individual governments and the European Union are making commitments to public dialogue on nanotechnologies that will influence the direction of research and development, and shape regulation policies and processes.
"Although nanotechnologies have been under development for many years, the issues behind the science have risen up the political and news agenda only recently," says Stark. "As such, the coming months will be a vital period in shaping the future development and application of nanotechnologies."
Support for government and corporate education initiatives, either jointly sponsored or independent, is generally shared among industry observers. According to Dr. Amarpreet S. Dhiman, a health care research analyst for Frost and Sullivan in London, "It is important that companies developing nanotechnology be far more open about its implications if they are to avoid a genetically-modified (GM) food-style backlash. The public debate appears to be moving ‘upstream,' to an earlier stage of research and development, so that legitimate concerns over new technologies can be fully considered."
Dhiman believes that the interdisciplinary character of nanotechnology and its application across a broad range of disciplines encourages dialogue between nanotech sectors and other communities, and has a greater ability to influence the public. He asserts that since the GM crops era, the public has become more educated through government initiatives and more understanding of the potential of science fact rather than of science fiction. Based on that model, he believes a large part of the education should come from companies that manufacture or warrant the use of nanotechnology products, in addition to cooperative efforts with government.
In a recent article in Issues in Science and Technology, authors John Balbus, Richard Denison and Laren Florini wrote: "…nanotechnology development and commercialization are still at an early stage, so it is not too late to begin managing this process wisely. Nanotechnology offers an important opportunity to apply the lessons from prior mistakes by identifying risks up front, taking the necessary steps to address them, and meaningfully engaging stakeholders to help shape this technology's trajectory. There is an opportunity to get nanotechnology right the first time."
Accelerating industry discussions dealing with creating safe and green nanotechnologies and developing programs to deal with bulk nanoscale materials before they are even used on an ongoing basis indicate that the industry is on the right path and that the mistakes of the past can be prevented.
In the U.S., a GreenNano initiative is being led by Dr. Barbara Karn of the EPA's National Center for Environmental Research. She is a nationally-recognized expert in combining nanotechnology with green chemistry, industrial ecology, and sustainability. According to Karn, "Nanotechnology promises to dramatically change the products we manufacture and the way we do manufacturing in virtually every area—electronics, transportation, food, and consumer goods. It offers us the opportunity to make products and processes ‘green' from the beginning. We simply cannot let this opportunity pass by."
The pervasive nature of nanotechnology and its potential to address some of the world's leading challenges such as energy, food, water, disease and crime, among others, are also working to mitigate public reluctance.
"It is just not going to be possible, for example, for environmental groups who have been advocating for solar energy research and investment for years to oppose nanoscale technologies that will make solar energy production efficient and affordable. However, many of them will--and do--oppose nanotechnologies that involve direct exposure of any untested nanoscale particles to humans and biotic systems," Karn adds.
It is this level of understanding that is helping to drive multi-level discourse and build understanding between industry, governments and the general public.
Maintaining the emotional and financial support of a fickle public with often short-term investment return expectations may prove to be a formidable challenge. Governments, corporations, and associations endeavoring to move nanotechnology forward need to ensure not only that their publics know what nanotechnology is, but that they understand clearly that there will be short-, medium-, and long-term breakthroughs and benefits delivered during the course of the nanotech era. While many of the outcomes promise to be astounding, financial investments and paybacks in nanotechnology may not be a short-term proposition.
Dan Zenka, APR, is director of global public relations and branding for FEI Company, a global supplier of enabling Tools for Nanotech research development and manufacturing. Currently based in Oregon, he has worked in the U.S. and Europe representing technology companies. He can be reached at