Sunday, May 21, 2006

Business and science frames in media on the decline; is a broader public debate about to start?

Barnaby J. Feder of the New York Times wrote a piece this past week about “Technology’s Future: A Look at the Dark Side.” Aside from the title, the piece is interesting for two reasons.

First, Feder at the New York Times and Rick Weiss at the Washinton Post have written many of the early nanotech stories, and their departmental affiliations have influenced the spin they took on nanotechnology. Rick Weiss is a science writer and Barnaby Feder is a business reporter, and – not surprisingly – early coverage of nanotech emphasized the economic and scientific potential of this new technology. Now, we are seeing critical pieces from both Feder and Weiss. Weiss recently wrote about his concerns about long-term effect of nano particles on lab workers who are exposed to these materials. Feder now writes in the Business section about the need for government oversight in order to appease increasingly concerned consumers.

If the biotechnology experience is a guide, getting governments more involved in nanotechnology risk management and educating consumers may generate profits in the long term.

"Companies need to embrace government oversight that makes consumers comfortable, and they need to offer people choices," said Rebecca J. Goldburg, a senior scientist at Environmental Defense. "Once people are empowered to make choices, they will often take what appears to be riskier options."

The second interesting aspect of Feder’s piece is the fact that the only quotes in the article come from Environmental Defense. This is not necessarily Feder’s fault and most definitely does not mean that the article is one-sided. Rather it shows who dominates public discussion about the societal implications of nano. Similar to biotech, scientists, governmental officials, and representatives from industry are strangely absent from public discourse, and leave it up to opponents of the new technology to set the dominant frames for societal discours.

(Partnership agreement between Environmental Defense and DuPont)

Claudia H. Deutsch added an interesting aspect to the debate with her piece in the New York Times on collaborations between companies and critics.

Environmental Defense wants chicken farmers to stop using antibiotics to spur growth. It wants strict controls on the budding field of nanotechnology. It wants fewer gas guzzlers on the road.

Not long ago, when it was still the in-your-face Environmental Defense Fund, the group would have looked for a company to sue, boycott or at least protest. Nowadays, it is looking for companies that can help it out.

"Our informal motto used to be 'Sue the bastards,' " Fred Krupp, the group's president, said. "Now our official tagline is, 'Finding the ways that work.' "

So Environmental Defense enlisted McDonald's to put pressure on chicken suppliers; Tyson Foods, for one, has already responded by slashing its antibiotic use. It worked with DuPont on nanotechnology regulations that both hope to prod Congress to pass. It joined with FedEx and the Eaton Corporation to convert part of the FedEx truck fleet to hybrid vehicles. The trucks are already being rolled out nationally.