Philip Ball discusses Europe's efforts to communicate innovations in nanotechnology to a wide audience

In 2015 the BBC broadcast a documentary called ‘Whatever happened to nanotechnology?’ Remember the radical predictions being made in 2006, it asked, such as curing blindness? Well, things didn’t turn out so simple. On the other hand, nor have the forecasts of nano-doom come to pass. Instead, there’s simply been plenty of solid, incremental science that has laid the groundwork for a brighter technological future. 

This scenario, imagined in a European Union working paper, Strategy for Communication Outreach in Nanotechnology, sounds a little unlikely, not least because television is ever less interested in stories with such anodyne conclusions. But this, the paper suggests, is the optimistic outcome: one where nanotech has not been derailed by inept regulation, industrial mishaps and public disenchantment. 

The object of the exercise is to tell the European Commission how to promote ‘appropriate communication in nanotechnology.’ The present working paper invites feedback from ‘all citizens and stakeholders, in Europe and beyond’ by the end of June 2007 - so there’s still time if you feel inclined. 

One of the striking things about this paper is that it implies one now has to work frightfully hard - using anything from theatre to food - to bridge the divide between science and the public. And all so that the public doesn’t pull the plug through distrust. If that’s really so, science is in deep trouble. What, however, is ‘appropriate communication’ of technology?  

Previous EU documents have warned that nanotechnology is poorly understood, difficult to grasp, and accompanied by real risks. ‘Without a serious communication effort,’ one report suggests, ‘nanotechnology innovations could face an unjust negative public reception. An effective two-way dialogue is indispensable, whereby the general public’s views are taken into account and may be seen to influence [policy] decisions’. 

This is, of course, the current mantra of science communication: engagement, not education. The EU paper notes that today’s public is ‘more sceptical and less deferential’, and that therefore ‘those seeking to communicate the wonders of their science [must] also listen to the perceptions, concerns and expectations of society.’ 

And so audiences are no longer lectured at, but discuss the issues with panels that include representatives from Greenpeace. There’s much that is productive and progressive in that. But in his bracingly polemical book The March of Unreason  (OUP, 2005), Lord Dick Taverne challenges its value and points out that ‘democracy’ is a misplaced ideal in science.  

‘Why should science be singled out as needing more democratic control when other activities, which could be regarded as equally ‘elitist’ and dependent on special expertise, are left alone?’ he asks. Why not ‘democratic art’? 

Taverne’s critique is spot-on. There now seems to be no better sport than knocking ‘experts’ who occasionally get things wrong, eroding the sense that we should recognize expertise at all. The deference of yore often led to professional arrogance; but today’s universal skepticism makes arrogance everyone’s prerogative. 

Another danger with ‘engagement’ is that it tends to provide platforms for a narrow spectrum of voices, especially those with axes to grind. The debate over climate change has highlighted the problems of insisting on ‘balance’ at the expense of knowledge or honesty.  

Nanotechnology, however, has been one area where ‘public engagement’ has often been handled rather well. One UK project hosted debates and discussions on nanotechnology, gathering information about what people really knew and believed. It concluded that attitudes to nanotechnology are not significantly different from attitudes to any new technology, and are generally positive.  

The EU’s project is timely, for the UK’s Council for Science and Technology, an independent advisory body to the government (see Chemistry World,  August 2006), has just pronounced critically on the government’s efforts to engage with the social and ethical aspects of nanotech. Their report looks at progress on this issue since publication of a nanotech review in 2004 prepared for the government by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering ‘The report led to the UK being seen as a world leader in its engagement with nanotechnologies’, it says. ‘However, today the UK is losing that leading position.’ 

It attributes this mainly to a failure to institute a coherent approach to the study of nano-toxicology, the most immediate concern highlighted by the 2004 review. Mark Welland, one of the expert advisers on this report, confirms that view. ‘The 2004 recommendations have been picked up internationally’, he says, ‘but the UK government has done almost nothing towards toxicology.’ Like others, he fears that inaction could open the doors to a backlash like that against genetically modified organisms or the MMR vaccine. 

If that’s so, maybe we do need good ideas about how to communicate. But that’s only part of an equation that must also include responsible industrial practice, sound regulation, broad vision, and not least, good research - and the money to pay for it.