A technology to kill

Such is the level of misinformation about nanotechnology that experts fear it could face a backlash that halts its development. Helen Knight and Julia Pierce report.

Activists who successfully campaigned against GM food are lining up stop nanotechnology in its tracks. if researchers do not take urgent steps to demystify their work and clarify its potential role and benefits, nanotechnology could end up being demonised by the media and feared by the public, as is GM.

The emerging science of tiny devices, systems and materials has now caught the attention of the same activists who campaigned vigorously, and successfully, against so-called ‘Frankenstein foods’. Fuelled by overstated and often hysterical claims from both sides – and some potent interventions from science-fiction writers and the tabloid press – nanotechnology research is facing a similar backlash to the one that put the biotechnology industry on the back foot. Some leading figures in the nanotech community fear developments in the field could be halted altogether if sceptics and protestors succeed in building up a momentum.

So concerned is the UK Institute of Nanotechnology that it will next week co-host a forum in London where scientific, ethical and business groups will discuss the role of nanotechnology in society. The stakes are high, because even its most vigorous opponents would find it hard to deny the potential of the technology as a source of beneficial advances across a range of disciplines.

Nanosubstances are already included in suncreams to block ultraviolet rays, while nanoceramics are being used as bone-replacement agents. Research is expected to lead to advances in areas such as communications, electronics and materials.

But a look at those building opposition to nanotechnology research reveals a catalogue of the ‘usual suspects’ from the GM foods debate. Canada-based environmental lobbyist the ETC Group has called for a moratorium on nanotechnology developments until ‘ethical and safety issues’ surrounding the research have been resolved. Under its former name – the Rural Advancement Foundation International – the group famously attacked GM research, labelling the work of US biotech food giant Monsanto as ‘terminator technology’, and lit the fuse for a global backlash that resulted in mass protests against the company.

Jim Thomas, a programme manager for the ETC Group, claimed that nanotech will attract even more controversy than biotech, and told The Engineer that it wants the creation of a UN agency to monitor emerging technologies.

‘This is a powerful technology and it needs more research, especially in terms of how it will affect all humanity, including the poor and dispossessed,’ he said.

In the UK, Greenpeace is warning of a ‘democratic deficit’ in technological and scientific research, and calling for the public to be more involved in the way new developments are deployed and to what purpose. Dr Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s chief scientist, claimed: ‘There are issues such as the environmental and toxic impact of nanoparticles, including their effect on the lungs and respiratory system. Irrespective of the material, whether it is latex, carbon or another type of nanoparticle, once you get to the very small you start to have a biological impact,’ he said.

The Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto has claimed that the backlash against nanotechnology is gathering momentum and could derail developments in the field. Researchers and activists seem to be ‘on a collision course towards a showdown of the type we saw with GM crops’, the Toronto centre claimed. Faced with such determined opponents, nanotechnology’s supporters are pondering their response.

The protesters have turned their attentions to nanotechnology because they have fallen for the numerous scare stories and unrealistic claims made about the field since its beginnings, according to Dr Jim Thomas, a Royal Society research fellow in the department of chemistry at Sheffield University, who is writing a book on the history of nanotech. ‘These are the same people involved in the GM debate looking for the next thing to jump on,’ he said.

But the discipline has not been helped by some of the exaggerated claims made on its behalf. ‘Some major claims were made at the start of nanotechnology’s development by people who were not really experts on the chemistry involved, and a lot of the protestors have believed what they have read,’ said Thomas.

The most famous example was Eric Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation, which examined the prospects for nanotechnology and warned against the arrival of self-replicating ‘grey goo’ that could destroy all life on Earth. Drexler raised the profile of nanotechnology but sometimes in a less than helpful fashion, according to Thomas, ‘Drexler has made claims about cell-sized submarines travelling through the body and curing cancer – that is not going to happen.’

But researchers are working on fuel cells that run on biological systems, which could potentially lead to the development of heart batteries powered by raw materials in the bloodstream. Progress in important areas such as this could be stopped by taking an overly cautious approach to nanotechnology research, warned Thomas.

‘Nanotechnology is really in its infancy, and to start waving arms about it when nothing has been proven is ridiculous. There will be no advances in nanotechnology if we start following a precautionary principle, and the precautionary principle has only been mentioned because of these overstated claims.’

The US government and scientific community are particularly guilty of over-hyping the potential of nanotechnology. The US administration will spend over $700m (£430m) on nanoscience and nanotech research in 2003, and with such a large pot of money on offer many academics are eager to assert that they are working in the field to grab a share, claimed Thomas.

The US’ National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), established under President Clinton, has also made outlandish claims, he said. ‘The people involved (in the NNI) have claimed that within 15 years we will all be telepathic due to nanotechnology implants. To stake such big claims will cause as much trouble as the protesters.’

Ottilia Saxl, chief executive of the UK Institute of Nanotechnology, said publicists in the US tend to paint scientists into a corner, urging them to make sensational claims for their research. ‘The US is wonderful for hype,’ said Saxl. ‘By contrast the UK must make itself a reputation for integrity by informing the public about the dangers as well as the benefits.’

But in the minds of the UK’s tabloids it is sensational stories that sell newspapers, making it difficult to discuss the technology rationally. ‘Every invention has the power to do both good and bad. The tabloids frighten the public, which makes them read their papers. We need to go past this and educate the public about nanotechnology’s benefits rather than having journalists confusing science fiction with reality,’ said Saxl.

Even the government is worried about the way nanotechnology is portrayed. A report from the Better Regulation Task Force, part of the Cabinet Office, recommended that the government provide the public with more information, to encourage a better informed debate on nanotechnology.

But in reality, according to those involved in the field, the difficulty in involving the public in these decisions is that nanotechnology is an area that few lay people understand, and is not easy to discuss without a sound technical background.

Dr Michael Mitchell, applied materials science analyst at Evolution Beeson Gregory, which invests in emerging technologies, said he fears a rerun of the problems that plagued the biotechnology industry if the nanotech sector does not sharpen up its act. ‘It is up to the technology community, the investment community and those involved in the analysis of industrial issues to present the arguments in as clear a way as possible,’ said Mitchell. ‘But the problem is that you then start dealing with people’s perceptions rather than reality, and it is very difficult to control perception.’

Perception is particularly hard to control when the worlds of blockbuster novels and Hollywood movies weigh in. Unfortunately, this is now happening to nanotechnology.The novel Prey by popular science-fiction author Michael Crichton envisages nano-engineered E coli cells mutating into intelligent swarms of lethal, self-replicating ‘nanobots’. Hardly the stuff of reasoned debate, but reasoned debate does not shift novels by the million. Prey is so scientifically inaccurate that the situations described could never arise, claimed Chris Phoenix, director of research at the Centre for responsible Nanotechnology, a California- based educational organisation formed to help prepare society for anticipated advanced technologies.

‘There are those who make their living by scaring people,’ said Phoenix. ‘The science in Prey has holes big enough to drive a car through. But many, or perhaps most, people don’t have the science training to spot the holes.’

A detailed analysis of nanotechnology would have many members of the public reaching for their off-buttons, for the facts are unlikely to grip the popular imagination. Nanotechnology can be divided into two broad camps: molecular nanotechnology (MNT), which refers to the process of building nanomachines by mechanochemistry, and structural nanotechnology (SNT), concerned with forming nanoscale structures such as coatings.

‘Most people don’t realise the difference between SNT and MNT, and anything scary that is said about either creates a general fear about anything connected with the word ‘nanotechnology’,’ said Phoenix.

Despite this, he does not believe groups such as the ETC should simply be dismissed as Luddites intent on destroying nanotechnology research, and with no valid concerns.

There are genuine areas for debate over the development, ownership and application of what all sides agree could be a major technology of the 21st century. The challenge for nanotechnologists is to find a language for that debate that the tabloids and Hollywood cannot turn against them.

SIDEBAR: Atomic manipulation: the emerging science

Science has yet to produce a precise definition for nanotechnology, though the word nano is Greek for dwarf. However, as a nanometre is defined as a billionth of a metre it can best be described as work at the level of atoms and molecules.

The possibility of manipulating material at nano-level was outlined in 1959 by Nobel Laureate Richard P Feynman, who suggested that devices could one day be fabricated to atomic specifications. But it was not until1974 that the term nanotechnology was coined by Prof Norio Taniguchi, and shortly afterwards the multi-disciplinary branch of research took off in earnest around the world.The 1980s saw a number of milestones including the development of the scanning tunnelling and atomic force microscopes, allowing researchers to at last view materials at atomic scale.

In 1990 Feynman’s vision of atomic manipulation was realised when IBM researchers moved xenon atoms to write their company’s logo on a nickel crystal. The following year carbon nanotubes were discovered and potential commercial applications of the technology began to filter through.

By 2000 many countries including the US had woken up to nanotechnology’s possibilities, leading President Clinton to announce £300m in funding for a National Nanotechnology Initiative.

SIDEBAR: A cautionary tale: GM foods

Since the Agricultural Revolution selective breeding has been used to create tougher crops with better yields. But in the minds of many consumers – and helped by a very public outcry from its opponents – tampering with the genes of foods such as tomatoes and wheat took the process too far.

In 1998 food expert Arpad Pusztai of Scotland’s Rowett Research Institute announced he would not eat genetically modified (GM) foods as they had not been properly tested, and suggested that eating GM potatoes had damaged the immune system of rats. Despite later evidence that Pusztai’s research was flawed, within days consumers and supermarkets were shunning ‘Frankenstein foods’ at the start of a Europe-wide backlash.

Such is the level of paranoia over GM that the government and biotech firms faced public outrage last year after news that GM seeds had escaped from trial sites in the UK to breed with local weeds. New Zealand’s government also faced allegations of a GM seed contamination cover-up, none of which endeared biotech pioneers to the sceptics.

Since the backlash began a transatlantic divide over the safety of GM products has developed. While Europe’s consumers are deeply suspicious most US citizens seem oblivious to concerns. In 2000 Kraft Foods faced an embarrassing product recall after Friends of the Earth revealed US-sold taco shells were ‘contaminated ‘with GM ingredients that had not been cleared for human consumption. However, the nation’s normally litigious shoppers did not sue.

US companies are now facing international lobbying against the provision of GM maize and soya as food aid to Africa, amid concerns that the desperation of the continent’s famine-stricken nations for supplies may result in their agricultural system becoming irreversibly ‘contaminated’.

With GM so firmly established as a bad thing in the minds of so many, it could be decades, if ever, before the industry recovers the lost ground.

Hysteria and headlines: the future according to the press

The nanotech future is a weird and wonderful place if Britain’s newspapers are to be believed.

In a Daily Mail article science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss claimed: ‘Androids, products of nanotechnology and no larger than ants, will sweep forward and back in time. They patrol the 20th century undetected, studying the perverse psychology which led to so many wars, so much misery. Back to base go their encoded digital reports.’

Some claims have been more sinister. Borrowing from Eric Drexler’s book, in a report entitled Doomsday Alert Over Robots, The Sunday Express warned: ‘Forget global warming, Frankenfoods and even nuclear war. Mankind is on the brink of extinction in 50 years unless something is done very quickly.’ The paper foresaw billions of dollars being invested in trying to build sub-microscopic machines and circuits, nanobots, atom by atom. ‘These would revolutionise manufacturing technology, but would also have the potential to eliminate all life on Earth, out-evolving flesh, blood, leaves and wood to cover the planet with ‘grey goo’.’

However, some scientists have also been guilty of making outlandish claims. In 2000, reporting on a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts conference, The Guardian noted that according to North Carolina State University’s Dr Christopher Brown, thanks to nanotechnology space travellers could soon benefit from the companionship of programmable plants able to obey instructions before being eaten. Also present was Dr Thomas Vaneck, who reportedly described robot eels giving birth to carbon nanotube seahorses able to investigate the oceans’ bed.