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March 29, 2004

IN A STRATEGY I'VE CRITICIZED AS SHORTSIGHTED, THE NANOTECHNOLOGY INDUSTRY, scared of backlash from Michael Crichtonesque scenarios involving molecular robots, has been pooh-poohing the possibility of advanced nanotechnology and stressing lower-tech nanomaterials.

The payoff? Articles like this one from the Washington Post: Nanotechnology Linked to Organ Damage -- Study. The study isn't about genuine molecular nanotechnology, but about nanomaterials of the sort that industry boosters would prefer the press to focus on. Oops.

In truth, these fears are rather overstated -- as I noted in my report from the EPA's Science Advisory Board meeting a few months back, this seems to be more of a workplace-safety issue than an environmental issue and toxicologists seem to feel they have a pretty good handle on these questions. It's also true that (as is often the case with stories on technological risk) the "study" trumpeted by the Post isn't exactly hard science yet: "The study, described at a scientific meeting Sunday, was small and has yet to be peer reviewed or published in a scientific journal." And most nanotechnology enthusiasts wouldn't consider "buckyballs" -- the actual subject of the study -- to be true nanotechnology at all, despite what the industry says.

Nonetheless, because of its worries about science-fiction-based fears where mature nanotechnology is concerned, the nanotechnology industry has mostly succeeded in exaggerating concern about shorter-term fears. Afraid that nanotechnology might be associated with lethal (and implausible) sci-fi robots in the public mind, it has produced a situation in which nanotechnology may come to be associated with lethal (and more plausible) toxic buckyballs instead. Call me crazy, but that seems worse. This ham-handed approach to public relations has the potential to do real harm to the industry, and in the process to a technology that the world desperately needs.

UPDATE: Howard Lovy notes that the Post story has a lot of other problems, too, and offers some very useful perspective.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Phil Bowermaster has advice for the nanotechnology industry.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Daniel Moore has comments.