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Much ado about almost nothing

Mar 18th 2004 | BOSTON
From The Economist print edition

The public outcry over genetically modified foods offers several lessons for those working and investing in nanotechnology

''THE time for discussion of the rights and wrongs of GM crops has passed. Intense and consistent economic sabotage and intimidation are what will make the commercialisation of GM crops an unattractive option.'' Words like these, from an article in the current edition of Earth First!, a radical environmental journal, send shivers down the spines of those involved in commercialising biotechnology. The strength of public disapproval of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) was a shock and a surprise to most of those involved. Now, some people are wondering whether nanotechnology-a term that covers the manipulation of matter at scales of a millionth of a millimetre-could be in for similar treatment and, if so, whether there are lessons that its protagonists can learn from the public backlash against biotechnology.

Profit of doom

In a neglected corner, amid thousands of participants at Nanotech 2004, a conference held in Boston last week, Jeffrey Matsuura, a law professor at the University of Dayton, in Ohio, stood next to his unprepossessing poster of his work. His warning, however, was pertinent to everyone there-especially the investors who were scouring the conference for opportunities. And this is that several of the factors that created a public backlash against biotechnology are already at work within nanotechnology. Furthermore, he warns that this might ultimately shape the development of the legal, regulatory and public-policy environment.

Dr Matsuura says that biotechnologists assumed that the public would quickly recognise and appreciate biotech's potential for improving the quality of life. Instead, the risks captured the attention of the media and much of the general public. Well-fed European consumers met the suggestion of cheaper food, in particular, with scepticism. Many felt that the gains would accrue to the companies which had developed GMOs, while the risks of growing and consuming the crops would be taken on by the public.

Dr Matsuura believes that public perception of nanotechnology is developing along a similar track. Like those of biotechnology, the first applications of nanotechnology will bring little obvious benefit to consumers. Better, cheaper materials, and hidden manufacturing efficiencies that benefit producers first, are redolent of the ''advantages'' of biotech-namely reduced applications of agricultural chemicals, which help to keep the cost down while raising yields. Obvious consumer benefits, such as improvements in medicine, are further away.

This should not matter-consumers do benefit eventually, even from cost savings. And yet, in alliance with a feeling that there are hazards involved, an absence of immediate benefits could turn public opinion against nanotech quite rapidly. And potential hazards there are. Concerns over out-of-control, self-replicating ''nanobots'' that would eventually consume and transform the entire planet into a ''grey goo'' are absurd. And yet, it is true that novel ''nanoparticles'' might have real toxicological risks.

Nanoparticles are so small that, if inhaled, they could become lodged in the lungs. In theory, they are small enough to enter living cells and accumulate there. And in January Ken Donaldson, a professor of respiratory toxicology at the University of Edinburgh, told a Royal Institution seminar in London that, once inhaled, ultrafine carbon particles can move to the brain and blood.

There are already several products that use nanoparticles already on the market, such as sunscreen and car parts. Though all this may sound alarming, people are already exposed to nanoparticles of many different kinds, and have been throughout history. Soot, for example, is composed of carbon nanoparticles. Nevertheless, nanoparticles from sources such as diesel soot, welding fumes and photocopier toner are already associated with ill-health. The prospect of more such particles is likely to worry many. No wonder that several people at the conference in Boston mentioned the need to address public fears over nanotechnology ''aggressively''.

One of these was Clayton Teague, the director of America's National Nanotechnology Co-ordination Office. He says the American government is as sensitive to any indication of true health risk as any member of the public. Several large and well-funded studies on the environmental and health risks of nanotechnology are now under way.

Dr Teague adds that any decisions about nanotechnology will be made carefully and based on solid scientific data. But even if science gives the go-ahead, another one of Dr Matsuura's lessons is that this might not necessarily win the day, and that fear over potential abuses and accidents may dominate the debate.

One piece of advice Dr Matsuura gives is that everyone involved should have a consistent message. If investors are told a technology will change the world, someone who is concerned about the risks cannot then be told that the same technology is no big deal. It strikes a false note to say that something can be both revolutionary and nothing to worry about, he says. Such inconsistencies will breed public mistrust and fear.

On top of this, some people will worry about which companies control a revolutionary technology, and who has access to it. Concerns over patents on genes have a direct analogy in nanotechnology. In the latter case, people are expressing alarm over claims about basic nanoparticles such as ''buckyballs'' and carbon nanotubes. Groups such as Greenpeace and the more radical ETC (also known as the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) are already warning about a gap developing in the future between nanotechnology ''haves'' and ''have nots''.

Product placement

Donald Reed is a senior consultant with Ecos, a business-advisory firm based in Sydney, Australia, that acts as an intermediary between corporations and activists. He is already working with DuPont, a large chemical firm that has interests in both agricultural biotechnology and nanotechnology. DuPont has hired Ecos to help it tackle emerging nano concerns.

Mr Reed goes as far as to recommend that companies think about the early products they choose to pursue-in particular, whether they can demonstrate the ''societal value'' of these products. For example, it might be worth emphasising that one of the early products of nanotechnology could be cheap and efficient photovoltaic materials, which are used to generate electricity from sunlight.

Mr Reed says that although only a few groups have expressed concerns about nanotechnology so far, this was also the case in the early days of biotech. If a bandwagon of fear and mistrust starts rolling, many people may jump on.

Sensitive to this possibility, the British government has commissioned a study into the issues raised by nanotechnology. Scientists and engineers involved have already pointed out that public perceptions are a potential barrier to progress.

In Europe and America, there is the growing sense that one of the most important lessons of the fierce opposition with which biotechnology has met is that, if science is seen to be progressing too fast, and too far beyond current knowledge, there will be pressure for legislation.

If public concern seems trivial at the moment, it is worth remembering the power of the media to inspire alarm. ''Jurassic Park'', a movie based on a book by Michael Crichton, did a great deal to generate interest and concern over biotechnology. Ironically, the author's latest tome is about nanotech. There is no release date, yet, but the film is in pre-production.

Story location: www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=2521232

 
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