TCS Daily

Nanotechnology and Damage

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - April 6, 2004 12:00 AM

As regular readers of this column know, I've been rather critical of the nanotechnology industry's recent public relations strategies. In short -- scared that advanced nanotechnology might spook the public with fears of Michael Crichtonesque scenarios of death and destruction -- the industry has been pooh-poohing not those scary scenarios, but the very possibility of advanced nanotechnology itself. I suppose they figure that if they can convince people that advanced nanotechnology is impossible, they can convince people that there's nothing to worry about.

I fear they have chosen poorly in selecting this strategy. There's plenty to pooh-pooh in the scary scenarios, as this debunking by Freeman Dyson makes clear. (And as, in a different fashion, Robert Freitas makes clear.) But the strategy of attacking the feasibility of advanced nanotechnology, while telling people that real nanotechnology is about such unthreatening things as stain-free pants and buckyballs (which most nanotechnology boosters don't regard as true nanotechnology at all), has its own risks, and those risks, unlike the more science-fictional ones, are materializing now.

Most Americans, after all, are smart enough to tell the difference between reality and science fiction novels like Crichton's Prey. (So is Crichton, whose public statements on nanotechnology have been quite sensible). But now that the public has been told that nanotechnology is really about buckyballs, reports like this one in the Washington Post are likely to have more consequences. The headline: "Nanotechnology Linked to Organ Damage - Study."

The "nanotechnology" in question isn't the sort of advanced nano-robot that features in Crichton's novel. It's the more prosaic "buckyball" -- nanoscale carbon polyhedrons known as fullerenes. They're important, and they may serve as a proxy for some other nanomaterials in terms of studies, but if it weren't for the industry's effort to link nanotechnology to things of this order, the headline probably would have read Buckyballs Linked to Organ Damage. That would be more accurate, and better for the industry, though less newsworthy. In fact, if it weren't for the "nanotechnology" hook, there might not have been a headline at all, as the study probably wouldn't have gotten much attention. Reading past the headline produces this information, which largely undercuts the study's scientific impact:

"The study, described at a scientific meeting Sunday, was small and has yet to be peer reviewed or published in a scientific journal. And although some companies anticipate making tons of the particles within the next few years, current production levels are relatively low, so the risk of exposure for humans and other animals is still quite small."

A study that's small, and has yet to be peer reviewed or published in a scientific journal, and that's about a technology that's barely present, isn't big news. Or at least, it wouldn't be, without the "nanotechnology" hook -- which exists largely because of the industry's efforts to portray nanotechnology in those terms. (And it shouldn't be big news: As I reported from the EPA's Science Advisory Board meeting last year, toxicologists seem to regard the nanomaterial toxicity issue as a manageable question of workplace safety, not as an environmental issue of great significance). But now, thanks to the labeling of such products as "nanotechnology," we're hearing speculation that nanotechnology might be the "next asbestos." And though such claims are overhyped (Howard Lovy offers more information on just how overhyped), they can't be dismissed -- as worries about nano-weapons and "gray goo" can be -- as having to do with technologies that don't exist yet.

In present-value terms, this looks like a bad deal for the industry. PR problems relating to the more distant future have been exchanged for PR problems that take place in the near term. And if, as I expect, advanced nanotechnology turns out to be feasible after all, the industry will still sooner or later have to deal with the fears that such technology brings -- only it will have to do so from a position of reduced credibility, as a result of its pooh-poohing. Having said that it was impossible in general, if they turn out to be wrong they'll be less credible when they argue that particular dangers are impossible.

In short, things are turning out pretty much as I expected they would, once this industry strategy became obvious. That doesn't make me happy. It makes me sad. I want to see the nanotechnology industry flourish. But even as new nanotechnology stock indexes are appearing, I see the industry making mistakes (sometimes though personal pique) that are likely to do it considerable harm over the long term. I don't think that it's too late for them to change their approach -- yet -- but I think that the damage is continuing to accumulate. And that's too bad. It's bad for the industry, it's bad for America, and it's bad for humanity. I hope they catch on soon.


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