Wednesday, April 05, 2006

History repeating itself? Public reactions to biotech and nanotech

Julian Cribb, an adjunct professor of science communication at the University of Technology, Sydney, writes about the potential for a public backlash against nanotech in The Australian. His conclusion: There is a real possibility of widespread public concern. And a scientific literacy aproach is not the solution.

In fact, Cribb argues, a more scientifically-knowledgeable public will also be a more sceptical public. While there is little empirical evidence to support this claim, Cribb's argument is at least worth considering. If members of the public are really behaving like scientists, he writes, they will be sceptical of research and critically evaluate each new study. The key problem, of course: They also lack the scientific expertise that s necessary to make comprehensive and accurate judgments, regardless of how high their lay scientific literacy may be.

A few
"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 people want it?

"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, large investors include defence establishments, which clearly hope the technology will deliver more efficient means to make war. That is, like nuclear science, harmful applications of nanotech are already being contemplated and the public knows this.

Fifth, once quantum computers and nanobots/nanosensors are invented they will have massive 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."