Nanotechnology, Risk and Upstream Public Engagement

By Macnaghten, Phil | Geography, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview
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Nanotechnology, Risk and Upstream Public Engagement

Macnaghten, Phil, Geography


This article examines the troubling relationship between emerging technologies, the uncertain and intensifying character of technological risk, and public concerns. It argues that serious gaps, dislocations and distortions exist between the forces driving novel science and technology and wider public values and sensitivities. The argument is developed through detailed examination of a recently completed research project on the social production and reception of nanotechnologies (for an extended account, see Kearnes, Macnaghten and Wilsdon, 2006).

Nanotechnology, as a case study, has a specific place in contemporary debates on science and technology as perhaps the site for potential future controversy (Joy, 2000; ETC, 2003). For its cheerleaders, the technology is seen to be ushering in a 'new industrial revolution' that will include breakthroughs in computer efficiency, pharmaceuticals, nerve and tissue repair, catalysts, sensors, telecommunications and pollution control.

The prefix 'nano' itself refers to the length scale (one nanometre (nm) is one billionth of a metre), and the term nanotechnology refers to the engineering, measurement, and characterisation of nano-scaled materials and devices. The ability and desire to manipulate matter 'atom by atom', and to create new properties on the 'nano' scale, is fast becoming a proven technology and there is an ever growing array of consumer products that make use of nanotechnology's uncanny properties in the nano world (Maynard, 2007). A recent report from Lloyd's Emerging Risks Team uses a striking analogy to demonstrate the increased reactivity and surface area that is observed at the nanoscale (Lloyd's Emerging Risk Team, 2007, p. 8). While a cube of 1cm^sup 2^ has a surface area of 6cm^sup 2^, dissecting that cube into lnm particles would increase the total combined surface area to approximately the size of a football pitch, some 10 million times larger. And given that the chemical reactivity of a material is related to its surface area compared to its volume, substantially less material at the nanoscale may be required to do the job than at a conventional scale. This dynamic has applications in the use of catalysts, clean-up and capture of pollution, and any application where chemical reactivity is important - such as medicine. The nano world is thus very different from the world around us in that physical laws derived from quantum mechanics come into operation, superseding the common-sense world of classical and Newtonian physics (Jones, 2004).

Given the undoubted potential of nanotechnology, research funding has increased exponentially. In terms of government investment, North America, Asia and Europe are spending significant amounts (US$1.1 billion to US$1.7 billion each in 2005) on researching and developing nanotechnology, up from around $100 million a decade earlier. Similar amounts are invested by industry in each of these regions. In 2006, worldwide funding for nanotechnology reached US$11.8 billion, an increase of 13% from 2005 according to the latest report by Lux Research. This report also suggests that US$30 billion to US$200 billion worth of products contained nanotechnology in the year 2005, that the number of products containing nanotechnology doubled between April 2006 and May 2007, and that 15% (by value) of all products are predicted to contain nanotechnology by the year 2014 (Lux Research, 2007). This is an indication that nanotechnology is viewed as a serious and important element for the world's future economy.

Nanotechnologies are also commonly heralded as offering the path for social betterment, and formal statements frequently stress the ways in which research programmes are attentive to wider societal and environmental concerns. Indeed, such 'socially responsible' considerations are seen as effective mechanisms for ensuring that the negative aspects and risks can be identified early, thereby permitting nanotechnology to 'maximise benefits for humanity' (Roco and Bainbridge, 2003).

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