Monday, March 31, 2008

Plastic or asbestos? Nano goes mainstream

PBS will air the first installment of their three-part series "Nanotechnology: The power of small" on April 2, 2008 (for an overview, see Mike Treder's post at Responsible Nanotechnology). And as far as a discussion of potential risks go, the program touches upon all the issues that our recent survey-based work identified as main concerns for the public (i.e., privacy) and for nano scientists (i.e., human health concerns and environmental risks).
"The series’ three programs explore critical questions about nanotechnology’s potential impact on privacy, the environment and human health: Will nanotechnology make you safer, or will it be used to track your every move? Will nanotechnology keep you young, and what happens if you live to be 150? Will nanotechnology help clean up the earth, or will it be the next asbestos?"

(Click here for the premiere event at the Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies.)
The program also sets the stage for the inevitable battle over the dominant frames in the emerging public debate about nanotechnology. Will it be the next asbestos or the next plastic? Is the right to privacy incompatible with the right to live and to find new cures for diseases? And what are the ethical concerns connected with pushing the envelope in terms of what is scientifically possible?

From the trailer, it seems that the the series gives short shrift to a key part of the equation: systematic, large-scale research that deals with what the public actually is concerned about, the potential benefits that citizens do see in the new technology, or potential informational gaps among different groups of the public and the role that media have played so far in (not) closing these gaps. Ironically, understanding how this debate does in fact influence or involve the public seems to be an afterthought at best for Public Broadcasting.
"The series begins airing on local public broadcasting stations in April 2008. [...] It is funded by NSF and the presenting station and grantee for the series is Oregon Public Broadcasting. The series is a “Fred Friendly Seminars” presentation with award-winning National Public Radio correspondent John Hockenberry as host."