Thanks to the determined efforts of scientists, nanotechnology is the next big thing. But is the attention starting to backfire? Could the term that was a convenient way of bringing together disparate fields and generating funds for interesting and important research at the interface between disciplines become a millstone? Nanotechnology is now the subject of scrutiny by pressure groups, government enquiries, and learned committees. Is nanotechnology set to follow the example of genetically modified (GM) foods?

The environmental group that has led the battle against nanotechnology, ETC (Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration), was formerly known as the Rural Advancement Foundation and campaigned against GM foods. While ETC’s call for a complete moratorium on nanotechnology seems extreme, there are genuine concerns about the safety of nanoparticles.

The first task of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering UK working group charged with investigating the potential benefits and impacts of nanotechnology has been to decide, in consultation with the community, exactly what the scope of their investigations should be [for more details, see: Materials Today (2003) 6 (9), 14]. The initial call for views elicited over 80 responses from academia, NGOs, and industry. Nearly every respondent raised the issue of health and safety, with the inhalation of nanoparticles a particular concern. “The air is already full of nanoparticles both naturally occurring and man-made,” says chair of the working group, Ann Dowling. “The study will explore whether nanoparticles produced by new technology have the potential to cause additional risks.” The working group will now consult with health and safety and environmental experts as part of its investigations. It will also embark on a two-month long period of public consultation via workshops, a survey, and the web.

This constitutes a crucial part of the scientific process, and one that is too often an afterthought. This oversight can have detrimental consequences, according to Davis Baird, a philosopher at the University of South Carolina, who has just received a substantial grant from the National Science Foundation to understand how we can go down a better path with nanotechnology. It is a two-way street: nonscientists need to understand what is possible in the lab, but scientists need to bear societal, as well as technical, issues in mind.

One sure way to gain public acceptance for nanotechnology may be to find that killer application. But how does scientific knowledge make its way into the marketplace? That is something that Lynne Zucker and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles are trying to find out. Zucker hopes that her work will help understand how knowledge is transmitted, what blocks it, and what works.

For more of an insight into what is working at the moment in nanoscience and technology, look out for theMaterials Today supplement, Nano Today, later this month (for further information,

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)01101-5