To say that I am ambivalent about the usefulness--or, better put, the point--of public engagement in the development of nanotechnology would be putting it mildly.
It seems that I had better get use to them because they are spreading like wildfire in both the US and Europe. The blog 20/20 Science has a guest article from Craig Cormick, Manager of Public Awareness and Community Engagement within the National Enabling Technologies Strategy in the Australian Department of Innovation, which gives us a rundown of the different varieties of the species and how they might be improved.
It’s still not quite any clearer to me after reading the piece what is to be gained from any of this public engagement, except perhaps to gainfully employ some social scientists, which is fine with me. But the rash of public engagement exercises don’t really seem to be informing or educating anybody.
Cormick does make a point, which I myself kind of had a hint of some time back, that despite efforts to get people afraid of nanotechnology they typically just shrug and move on. Cormick explains this as being because nanotechnology is a “white hat technology”.
Basically this means that no matter what you say against it people are inclined to ignore the negative and focus on the positive.
I suppose this could be behind the odd practice of tagging on what Tim Harper describes as the “dystopian angle” to stories covering nanotechnology, even when they are bought and paid for by a government attempting to promote the field.
In this case, the UK-based Guardian newspaper has no worries that the audience will ever actually become concerned about nanotechnology, so the journalist can feel free to satisfy his or her need to provide balance by formulating some dystopian fantasy likely informed by the usual suspects when the article's aim was to promote nanotechnology.
Again, I have to ask: Is this the kind of public engagement governments are paying for? In this case, we get your typical false equivalencies seen regularly in the mainstream press, which may help seed division and thereby sell papers, but seems to provide some poor information on the real risks and benefits of nanotechnology.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.