It was my understanding that one of the primary motivations for this document was the concerns that have been raised about the safety, social and ethical issues posed by nanotechnology. The safety issues seem straightforward in principle, and the document deals well with these. But I was surprised to find the social and ethical issues confined to a single paragraph at the end. The fact that nanotechnology raises no new social and ethical issues in the general sense – these are an aspect of any emerging technology – is beside the point. Experiences in biotechnology – with GM crops, cloning and stem-cell research – have surely shown that there is a strong potential for a new field of applied science to encounter big problems if the social and ethical issues are not recognised and discussed openly at the outset. There is an opportunity here for nanotechnology to serve as a model case for how a new technology might be shaped and guided by interactions between scientists, businesses and the broader society that they serve. It would be nice if this were to happen, but I cannot regard that as very likely if the nature of that interaction in confined along the lines sketched in this report.

Most concerning of all is the underlying implication in the report – one that has been implicit for a long time in efforts to enhance the “public understanding of science” – that the key is simply to educate the public and thereby avoid misconceived fears. The idea seems to be “once they understand what we are doing, they will agree with us.” I am passionate about the need to communicate science to non-scientists, and about the value of doing this. I agree that it is all but impossible to have a rational debate about a new technology without some basic level of understanding of the science involved. But I think that the notion that this is in any sense a “solution to public fears” is naïve and potentially disastrous.

There needs, for example, to be an acknowledgement that some valid fears do not in fact require much technical understanding at all. It is entirely proper that public groups should ask: Who is setting the agenda for this technology? Who will benefit? Who is accountable, and to whom? New technologies have the power to improve our lives, but they can also widen the gap between rich and poor. They can increase our range of choice; but is that always beneficial to society as a whole? Surely we have learnt from the GM debate that one of the biggest public fears about a new technology is not that it will be dangerous per se but that it will be foisted upon them without their consent, by powerful businesses who need not have their best interests at heart. This may be a simplistic or naïve view, but the concerns that underlie it are perfectly understandable and reasonable.

Moreover, one of the other lessons apparently learnt from the GM debate is that public fears are not necessarily based on ignorance: that they are not as poorly informed as the media might sometimes have us believe. It may be that some groups understand very well what a new technology offers, and do not like it. Indeed, one could arguably make this case about stem-cell research in the USA, where the problem is not about lack of understanding but about a basic conflict of systems of value and belief. One may disagree with such objections, but one is not going to remove them by better communication of the science.

And in the case of nanotechnology, do we even know what the major public concerns are, or are likely to become? If they are based on nothing more than Drexler-style fantasies, then I doubt they will be too difficult to dispel; but I suspect that is not the case. Would it not be worthwhile commissioning studies to assess this? Would it not, indeed, have been a good idea to include people with the appropriate expertise in the Nanotechnology Working Group?

Some specific comments:

p9: The definitions of dimensionality here are surely eccentric. Most scientists would understand a 3D system to mean ‘extended in three dimensions’, a 2D system extended in two dimensions and so on. The definition suggested here is the reverse of that, and would be deeply confusing. It is routine to speak of quantum dots as ‘zero-dimensional’, which makes plenty of sense.

p16-17: ‘Science fictions’ in nanoelectronics. I’m not at all sure why 3D self-assembled systems are classified this way, nor single-molecule electronics. This seems to be a very conservative point of view. Extended self-assembly in 2D has already been demonstrated, and so, arguably, has single-molecule electronics with nanotubes. It is a long way from being practical, but it seems strange to call it ‘science fiction.’

I’m not aware of any ‘nano’ proposals for desalination of water, and am not at all sure how these would work.

In general there seems to be a lack of discussion of self-assembly in the document. This is emerging as a central concept for the construction of new materials and devices at the nanoscale, uniting nanotechnology with the well established field of supramolecular chemistry. The only genuine nanotechnology that we currently know of – that which exists in biology – is constructed entirely on the principle of self-assembly, with the idea being that the individual components of the system are programmed with the information they need to come together and function properly. This question of where to put the information is one that any viable nanotechnology must address.

Philip Ball