Overhyping (Nano)technology

By Michael Edmonds 12/02/2011

The other day I was channel surfing and caught the end of a short clip on nanotechnology on one of the documentary channels. I thought this would be interesting to watch as I am off to A Big Discussion About Small Things at the Christchurch College of Education next week.  However I was very annoyed to hear the presenter make a very bold statement along the lines of “Nanotechnology WILL solve the world’s energy needs, cure disease and eliminate poverty and environmental pollution.”

These types of statements annoy me because I think they create more problems for science and technology than they solve. For example, while I think there is little doubt that nanotechnology will produce advances in energy technology, food production and medicine, the likelihood of nanotechnology solving ALL of the worlds energy needs, curing ALL disease and eliminating environmental issues and poverty is very small. (Considering the last point, there are enough resources in the world right now to reduce poverty substantially anyway, however it is not lack of technology, but politics and greed which get in the way).

My worry is that the public very readily remember these sorts of statements as promises which go unfulfilled. Once such statements go into circulation, even significant breakthroughs in science, such as the curing of one type of cancer, can seem unimpressive if compared to a perceived “promise” to cure ALL disease. Furthermore, there is often the expectation that such promises will be fulfilled in a matter of years rather than decades.

I think it is great for science and technology to be promoted to the public as exciting and (usually) beneficial to humankind because they are,  but this type of oversell is too much.

I’ll be interested to see how nanotechnology is described at “A Big Discussion About Small Things” particularly given the quote from Professor Simon Brown from the University of Canterbury in this mornings Christchurch Press.

“It’s even in the food you eat. But the safety of many of these products is not clear and there has been very little public discussion.”

While such a statement is probably quite accurate from a scientific perspective, I do wonder what the average Joe Public might make of “the safety of many of these products is not clear”? In my experience the mere mention of possible hazards can lead to public over reaction – just look at the issues surrounding genetic engineering. Hopefully these issues will be handled carefully at the Big Discussion.