No one is afraid of nanotechnology.
And at this point, no one any longer seems to be afraid that people will become afraid of nanotechnology.
There used to be a lot of anxiety about that. Federal research agencies, foundations, and private industry all supported studies aimed at predicting how the public would react to nanotechnology—and how unreasoning fear, or self-reinforcing dynamics of political polarization, might be averted through adroit communication strategies. The worry was that nanotechnology might follow the path of nuclear power or genetically modified foods in Europe.
The concern seemed reasonable. Indeed, CCP did a study, which found that when individuals were exposed to balanced information on nanotechnology’s potential risks and benefits, they polarized along lines that reflected their cultural predispositions toward other environmental and technological risks, such as climate change and nuclear power.
But nanotechnology has been around for many years now, and nothing of any consequence has happened. The public remains largely oblivious—neither concerned in general nor polarized.
To illustrate, consider some data collected from a large, nationally representative sample in April. Nanotechnology is a risk-perception blip compared to climate change and nuclear power.
The public not only has failed to become anxious about nanotechnology. It still hasn't really noticed that nanotechnology exists. Surveys continue to show that very few people say they have heard about or know much of anything about it.
Maybe things will still “heat up.” But I’d be surprised at this point. Very surprised.
That doesn’t mean I think it was a waste for researchers to have studied public reactions to nanotechnology.
On the contrary, I think the self-conscious effort to try to forecast its possible risk-perception trajectories—for the purpose, if possible, of guiding it away from influences inimical to reasoned and constructive engagement of the best available scientific evidence—was a model one, well worth emulating for emerging technologies in general.
The number of putative risk sources that are amenable to cultural polarization will always exceed by a large margin the number that actually do generate polarization. But because the public welfare costs of such conflict are so high, it makes sense to try to learn what influences cause emerging technologies to become suffosed with this pathology, and what sorts of steps can be taken to steer them clear of it.
Still, it does seem to me that at this point the question is not so much “whether” nanotechnology will become suffused in controversy but why exactly it didn’t. Researchers who are continuing to focus on nanotechnology should try to figure that out—by, say, taking a close look at the career of nanotechnology in public discourse and comparing it with various other technologies, both ones that have generated high degrees of concern and controversy and ones that haven’t.
The only valid way to learn about causation is to examine carefully both the occurrence and non-occurrence of events of interest.
Now, here’s a conjecture to get things started.
Although most people still haven’t heard of nanotechnology, my own casual observations suggest that if one asks people to “complete the phrase” that begins “nano. . .,” the most likely response (after “huh?”) is “Ipod.”
I suspect Apple has immunized nanotechnology from controversy by infusing it with the positive connotation evoked, more or less universally, by its more or less universally beloved entertainment technology.
Can this outcome—which surely was a matter of sheer happenstance—be consciously directed in the future?
Today there is widespread concern that synthetic biology will be the next “nuclear power” or “GMO” in risk-perception terms.
To forestall this, I propose—the Synbio iPad!
Using the engineering techniques associated with synthetic biology, researchers have in fact created a form of e coli capable of solving complicated math problems.
So, just fuse some e coli with the processor of the iPad 4 or 5 or 9 or whatever we are up to—and voilà: as the tide of public infatuation rises, good will will spill over onto synthetic bio (“synbio . . . iPad!”), immunizing it form mindless contentiousness that has infected climate change, GM foods (in Europe), and nuclear power (everywhere but in France) etc!
(Actually, e coli are the rock stars of synbio—being taught how to do all sorts of astonishing things, including how to fill the air with pleasant fragrances; a very nice turnaround for an organism that has borne a retched stigma since the beginning of human understanding of microbial life.)
As I said, merely a conjecture.
But inspired insight of this sort is among the predictable public-welfare returns on investments in scientific risk-perception forecasting.