Comment: Is 'nano' the next GM?

Nanotechnology has received some pretty rough treatment from the media recently - Fiona Fox investigates.

Fiona Fox
One of the biggest questions facing science at the moment is 'will nanotechnology be the next GM?'

My first answer is that it certainly could be. It is a new and radical area of science and has all the right ingredients. The potential is huge for scary visions of self-replicating 'nanobots' turning the world into 'grey goo'. And let's face it, the media love nothing better than a good scare story!

Nanotechnology already has some powerful adversaries: Prince Charles, Zac Goldsmith and a number of environmental pressure groups all know how to ensure their concerns are voiced by the media. So here are my top tips for ensuring that current arguments over nanotechnology do not reach the levels of histeria achieved over GM.

First, don't hype it up. According to an EPSRC report, some 'nano-utopian' scientists are claiming that nanotechnology will clean up the environment, eradicate world poverty and free humanity from disease, ageing and death. If nanotechnology is described in this way you cannot blame the press for exaggerating the potential impacts.

However, we should not be overly modest either. Recently a group of US scientists described how nanotechnology can be used to burn cancerous tumours while leaving healthy tissue unhurt. This is a fantastic development and must be shouted from every rooftop. If the public is to weigh up the risks and benefits of nanotechnology, it must know what these benefits are. Part of the problem with genetic-modification debate is that the public does not understand the benefits.

When nanotechnology hits the headlines, don't flee! When Prince Charles made his claims that nanotechnology would turn the world into grey goo, in a five-page article in the Mail on Sunday, the Science Media Centre struggled to meet journalists' demand for scientists to answer his charges. During the GM debate, when scientists 'turned the other cheek', the vacuum was filled with the voices of critics.

It is important not to demonise your critics. Árpád Pusztai, who claimed that GM potatoes were detrimental to rats, was found to be wrong, but became a media hero because he was vilified by his colleagues. By all means fight your corner, but appreciate that the way in which you criticise someone is very important.

The media do actually like nanotechnology; they want your stories. Anything from papers at conferences to reports of new products will feed the hungry media machine. If you don't give the press their leads then others will.

It is vital, though, to be careful with the language you use in media interviews and agree a common vocabulary. Roger Highfield of The Telegraph says that nanotechnology is just a fancy name for chemistry. You may not want to subscribe to this view, but you should decide on a simple description and stick to it.

Finally don't refuse to engage with the debate at a broader, societal level. Caroline Lucas-MEP and vocal critic of nanotechnology-recently said 'Already [proponents of nanotechnology] are presenting nanotechnology as a scientific issue rather than a societal one'. In an article in The Guardian, she argued 'that no one really knows what the long-term effects of manipulating matter at the atomic level will be. We must therefore adopt a moratorium on the commercial production of nanotechnology'.

I think, as members of the scientific community you are exceptionally well-placed to debate whether we want a society framed by such a cautionary approach. Scientists are just as capable of presenting a vision of a better society as campaigners and politicians.

So, what of an answer to my original question: 'will nanotechnology become the next GM?' If I tell you that none of the above advice is my own and that it was put together after many discussions with other scientists and press officers, I think you will agree that it does not have to be. As I say, it is entirely down to us.


Fiona Fox is head of the Science Media Centre at the Royal Institution