Risk and Opportunities of Nanotechnology

I have to confess to not always understanding the point of some forums or who the attended audience is supposed to be.

Such is the case for a webcast that ran live on Tuesday of this week (which has now been archived and you can access on the page I linked to here).

It has a distinguished panel, a noted moderator and a lively discussion for 50 minutes or so. But for what and for whom is this intended dare I ask?

It was put on by the University of Michigan Risk Research Center, which the moderator, Andrew Maynard, took the helm of late last year. And it has a clever title “Nanotechnology—Unplugged” that was somewhat unfortunate in that it left me wondering who thought that it was a good idea to plug it all into the Internet.

It’s not forming the basis of any regulatory framework, it’s not educating legislators or regulators as to the issues they face when tackling nanotechnology, it doesn’t present the kind of information that researchers, engineers and scientists might find beneficial to do their work and I think you could hardly call it a public engagement exercise—thank goodness for that.

So, the point of this webcast other than entertaining a handful of people eludes me. But alas, that’s not that important. Let’s take a look at the content.

We get a chemist who gives us the required definition of nanotech and its scale, we get a toxicologist who provides some science for looking at the risks of nanotechnology and a social scientist who is eager to have us take into account the instincts of the uninformed when approaching emerging technologies.

To me there were a few key exchanges. One that had my jaw drop and I already alluded to was when the social scientist said something to the effect: You don’t have to have an understanding of science to have instincts about a particular technology that are valuable in a few ways.

These ways amounted to market research for producers to avoid pitfalls and take advantage of unknown markets. Okay, but couldn’t I just ignore them and figure that out myself?

As the video below demonstrates, people’s instincts on science, especially when they are—shall we say—poorly informed, are really best avoided.

Then the toxicologist kind of made all the concern over nanotechnology, versus say just about any other toxic chemical that we use in our everyday lives, a little silly: There’s no connection yet between quantum mechanical properties of a material and toxicity.

Uh oh…somebody just spoiled the party. We were going to bring in Auntie Alice to ask about her instincts on the use of graphene versus molybdenite for gate materials, but it looks we might want to wait.



IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain