What is the Role of the Public in Nanotechnology's Development?

I was very pleased this week to receive an e-mail from Chris Toumey, who, in addition to working at the University of South Carolina NanoCenter, contributes four commentaries per year to Nature Nanotechnology 

It seems Toumey had read one of my pieces (from the description I assume it to be this one) and had sent along a piece he had written for Nature Nanotechnology back in 2008 entitled “Questions and Answers” (subscription required).

The piece describes Toumey’s valiant effort to go through all the basic introductions to nanotechnology and determine which one actually best accomplished what it set out to do.

I won’t go further in describing this piece since you all may not be able to gain access to it, but instead direct you to a more recent piece of Toumey’s, which is more or less on the topic of how science engages the public. It's called “Science in the service of citizens and consumers.”

Science, to my mind, always seemed to be an inquiry on how the world around us operates. If it serves anything, it might be our curiosity, but I am wondering if we might be confusing science with technology when we see it as providing some kind of service to citizens and consumers.

Anyway, the main point of the piece seems to be that we should focus on what the public actually wants to know instead of what scientists believe they should know.  

It makes sense, of course, but the problem is that typically, what the public really wants to know is whether Britney Spears will remarry. People's sometimes ugly confusion that derives from this fundamental urge includes all sorts of misapprehensions about the world around them, as I have indicated in the past.

On the issue of citizens, consumers, or whatever other term you would like to use to identify the public, and their role in science, I put myself squarely in the “cynic” category. I am hard pressed to imagine how science can best be guided by an uninformed public, or, worse, one informed by scare mongers and half-truths. 

But I am no social scientist, and determining a toxicology paradigm for nanoparticles may actually benefit from the input of someone who can tell you the comings and goings of the latest Hollywood starlet. Who knows?



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