March 19, 2004

What's in a Word?

The Economist has a timely article warning that "several of the factors that created a public backlash against biotechnology are already at work within nanotechnology… which might ultimately shape the development of the legal, regulatory and public-policy environment." Some nanotechnology stakeholders completely dismiss environmental concerns as getting in the way of the dash for cash, something the Biotech industry found to be extremely counter productive while others take a more open minded and inclusive view.

The major mistake being made here, and history really is repeating itself, is lumping a collection of diverse applications under one technological banner. The term "genetically modified organisms" (GMOs) encompasses a wide range of applications, some of which give cause for concern, others of which are entirely manageable and exactly the same is true for nanotechnology. It is not the basic technologies that give cause for concern, but their applications.

Consider physics for example. The same understanding of natural phenomena can be applied to computer memories, MRI imaging, and the production of nuclear weapons. Similarly the application of chemistry can result in anti cancer drugs or nerve gas. Even in the application of nanoparticles, the use to which they are put will determine the appropriate regulatory framework. A commonly used material such as titanium dioxide needs to be treated very differently when applied to the skin in the form sunscreens and cosmetics from when it is used in an automotive paint.

The major factor at work in shaping public perception of nanotechnology seems to be the misuse of the word 'nanotechnology' itself, something both we and Eric Drexler can agree on, though perhaps for different reasons.

Posted by Cientifica at March 19, 2004 10:57 AM | TrackBack
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