Nanoscience and technology seems finally to have caught the public’s attention. But perhaps not in the way that scientists had in mind. Michael Crichton’s latest blockbuster Prey tells the story of “an experiment that has gone horribly wrong”, according to the blurb for the US edition. An experiment at the boundaries of nanoscience, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence. A cautionary tale of good nanoparticles gone bad. You can already see the posters for the movie… But the problem is that, to quote the book’s cover copy once again, Crichton is “drawing on up_to_the_minute scientific fact”. Except that it is a fictionalized version of fact based on scant understanding of the underlying science. It may be a great story, but will the general public recognize it for just that — a great story but nothing more? Or is there a danger that the notion of nanotechnology going disastrously wrong will seep into the public perception as fact?

Perhaps the willingness of the general public to believe science fiction over fact is a reflection of the failure of the scientific community to engage in a meaningful discussion of the ethics and impact of its work. Such is the conclusion of a team of researchers from the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics in Canada [Nanotechnology (2003), 14 (3), R9]. Anisa Mnyusiwalla and coauthors believe that there is a growing backlash against nanotechnology, which should be addressed now before it becomes entrenched. “It is to be expected that a technology that promises to make massive changes to our lives would be viewed with suspicion and, perhaps, outright fear,” says one of the authors Peter Singer. “Open public discussion of the benefits and risks of this new technology is urgently needed.”

There is a lack of quality research into the ethical, legal, and societal implications of nanotechnology, say out the authors, despite the availability of funds. In 2001, for example, the US Nanotechnology Initiative spent only half of its $16–28 million budget for research into the ‘societal implications’ of nanotechnology and the National Science Foundation (NSF) did not fund a single project because of a lack of meritorious proposals. The NSF did, however, instigate two conferences last year and has scheduled more this year to provide a means for the discussion of the societal implications of nanotechnology. But whether these discussions will manage to filter out to a wider audience remains to be seen.

The danger inherent in trying to avoid the problem can be seen from the public showdowns that have dogged genetically modified crops, say the Toronto team. A recent report, The Big Down: Atomtech — Technologies Converging at the Nanoscale, by the advocacy group ETC is a case in point. Its call for a moratorium on research into ‘molecular manufacturing’ and the use of nanomaterials should be a wake up call. The scientific community must enter into a public debate, at the very least to assuage fears arising from illogical extrapolation of current research.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)00501-7