Saturday, February 17, 2007

Nanotech at AAAS: Regulations vs. social science?

Nanotech -- like biotech -- is an issue that bridges science, politics, and markets. And a narrow scientific focus on safety and regulations ignores many critical influences on long-term public support for nanotech. This is one of the lessons from an editorial in the most recent issue of Nature Biotechnology on the closing of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. In spite of much criticism, the editorial argues, one of the key contributions of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology was to bring different stakeholders to the table:
"One criticism of Pew is that too often it placed undue emphasis on the perceived risks of recombinant technology without providing sufficient context on the risks of other conventional approaches, creating an impression of controversy where none exists. What's more, to get people with divergent views to sit around the same table, Pew provided all comers with equal time and weight in the policy discussion, regardless of whether their opinions were backed by scientific data; in some instances, detractors argued this gave certain viewpoints more credence and validation than they deserved."
Dismissing some of the arguments made in these debates because of their non-scientific nature, of course, ignores the realities of consumer markets. Consumers are wiling to overpay for luxury SUVs because of a small yellow-and-black logo, and they boycott and firebomb Shell gas stations because of moral outrage over an out-of-commission oil rig. And they're not right or wrong. They simply use information as one of many factors when they make decisions about a product or a new technology. Or as the Nature Biotech editorial puts it:
"[T]hose who dogmatically dismiss a dialog on biotech products because it strays outside science are fundamentally in error. The discussion has moved beyond inventions or discoveries or regulatory systems. It involves products. And biotech products, like the products of any other business, need markets—markets where the values expressed by consumers clearly trump scientific arguments every time. One need look no further than what has happened in Europe in recent years."

(Click here for the complete Nature Nanotech editorial.)
This also means that the current focus on the regulatory aspects of nanotech and its potential toxic qualities is too narrow when it comes to the long-term market potential of nanotech. And of course this also came out at some of the deliberations at AAAS in San Francisco this weekend .

"In her talk at the AAAS Annual Meeting, Colvin said that regulation of existing nanomaterials—including clear labeling—is necessary. But she also suggested that more research toward “safety by design” could bring better products to market in the future."

(Click here for the full release.)

And Colvin is right, of course. As a chemist, she approaches this issue from a scientific angle: “[I]ntegrating and thinking about issues of safety and sustainability as early as possible is really critical.” But there is much more to the story. Competent and innovative public communication requires sound social science. And the future of any commercial success of nanotechnology will depend on our ability to understand how consumers approach these technologies, what their concerns are, how they make decisions, and how we can effectively reach them with messages that are relevant to their concerns.