Congratulations to Khalid Hattar of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose stunning image on the front of this issue wins our annual cover competition. The fractal pattern, captured during a Au-Si eutectic reaction, highlights the fascination and beauty possible in materials research. Unfortunately, a rather different competition has been announced elsewhere. And rather than celebrate research, it seeks to trample all over it.

The ETC Group, an environmental pressure group based in Canada, has asked “concerned citizens” everywhere to submit designs for a “universal nanotechnology hazard symbol”. In the same way that we have warning triangles for radiation or toxic hazards, the idea is that the winning symbol would mark the presence of engineered nanomaterials. The first problem with this, of course, is that we have a pretty rigorous basis for understanding the risks associated with radiation and toxic substances in terms of dose and exposure. That's far from being the case with any engineered nanomaterial.

But the main problem is that there is nothing “universal” about nanotechnology and nanomaterials. It is now clear that any hazards (and there could be some) associated with free, engineered nanoparticles depend on the particular, specific material in question – not just its size and composition, but how it was synthesized and purified, its size distribution, surface chemistry, impurities, and – perhaps most of all – the packaging into a product. But that's all a bit subtle for this competition.

How can it be right to emblazon any product with any nanomaterial in any form with a symbol that says warning, dangerous, be very scared? Are we really to be afraid of sunscreens, self-cleaning windows, structural composites, tennis rackets, medical devices, clothing, DVD players, and iPods? And all in the same way?

This competition is clearly being used by ETC as a tactic. The group has previously called for a moratorium on nanotechnology research, yet I have heard their director Pat Mooney admit that he never expected to gain any ground on this. That's why I was surprised to see Vyvyan Howard, founder of the journal Nanotoxicology, and Alexis Vlandas, of the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility, on the judging panel.

My disappointment is really because I thought the debate had moved on. The 2004 Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering report in the UK set out the health and safety issues. Funding agencies are developing strategies for supporting nanotoxicology research and regulatory bodies are discussing how to proceed.

The public are still largely unaware and unconcerned about nanotechnology. But I am sure they will recognize this childish stunt for what it is.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(06)71719-9