Nanotech’s hype buster

While no expert on the subject, the chairwoman of the UK government’s nanotech inquiry says her fresh eye will help separate media hype from reality, writes George Coupe

Ann Dowling, an eminent professor of mechanical engineering at Cambridge University, this week emphatically announced that she did not know much about nanotechnology. This admission may seem surprising considering that she is about to chair a government working group set up to investigate the potential risks and benefits of the technology.

Professor Dowling is a fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, the two bodies charged with organising the government’s nanotechnology inquiry. She also has experience on many different government and industry advisory boards, is a member of the council of the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, a non-executive director of Cambridge-MIT and a trustee of the National Museum of Science and Industry.

Her work at Cambridge, where she is director of the Gas Turbine Partnership, is mainly in the field of acoustics, vibration and combustion. The intended application of this research is the development of clean combustion and quiet vehicles.

Nanotechnology has yet to figure in her work, but she believes that coming to the subject fresh with a keen, analytical mind will be an advantage.

Besides which, her frank admission to a lack of knowledge about nanotechnology does not put her out of the ordinary. While scientific research at the nano level has been carried out in laboratories up and down the land for many years, the application of those discoveries in the fields of engineering and medicine, to name but two, is very recent.

Among those who do know something about nanotechnology, there is an expectation that this field of science is on the brink of revolutionising our physical world, delivering great practical and economic benefits.

The notion that scientists are on the verge of something big has in turn caught the public imagination. Some newspaper coverage has been favourable, but much of it has played up fears that the technology – just like nuclear power and GM food before it – could destroy us if it is let loose.

This has caused a public relations problem for the government, which wants to support nanotechnology. There were also fears that media speculation about the dangers of nanotechnology, plus the intervention of Prince Charles in the debate, had pushed the government into a corner, where it is now casting about for the least politically damaging way to proceed.

While the likes of the US, Japan and Korea pressed ahead with investments in the technology, the UK government, desperate to show some sensitivity to public opinion, decided to set up the working group.

However, last week the UK government said it would spend £90m on support for the commercialisation of nanotechnology. This was given a cautious welcome by the scientific community, but there is still a danger, according to some in the industry, that the inquiry will result in regulation for regulation’s sake.

Dowling, who will chair a panel of experts, dismisses suggestions that her inquiry is a response to the scaremongers. However, the fact is that public opinion, and not science, was firmly in the driving seat in the creation of the working committee.

The direct impetus for a nanotechnology inquiry came from the Better Regulation Task Force, a naturally regulation-minded body. Concerns are now mounting that the pressure of public opinion alone has shifted the focus away from the opportunities that nanotechnology offers and on to regulation.

Ottilia Saxl, chief executive of the Institute of Nanotechnology, said: ‘We must not lose sight of the fact that nanotechnology will have a huge impact on our economy. I welcome any study conducted by knowledgeable people that is open and frank – but there is a danger of involving people who are too ignorant about it.

‘The rest of the world is moving ahead with nanotechnology research and is laughing at us in the UK.’

One of Dowling’s own colleagues at Cambridge, Mark Welland, professor of nanotechnology, last week criticised the government for dithering. He said the UK was ‘scurrying along behind’ rather than leading the way.

Dowling countered that it is wholly correct to respond to public concerns. ‘Some unease about nanotechnology was expressed earlier this year with suggestions that plagues of self-replicating nano-bots could turn the world into grey goo. A key role of the project will be to separate such hype and hypothetical situations from the reality.’Dowling has read the Michael Crichton thriller Prey, which features a plague of self-replicating nano-bots, and described it as a ‘great read’.

While this might alarm some members of the nanotech industry, it does not necessarily mean she will be regulation minded when it comes to delivering her report to the DTI in April next year. ‘This is a new technology which has the potential to do very many things,’ she said, ‘but it might be that these are already covered by existing legislation. I hope that if there are risks, then safeguards will be put in place.’

As with her work in mechanical engineering, Dowling said she hopes to make a difference. She has concentrated on improving the environmental impact of gas turbine engines in the aerospace and power generation industries. ‘I certainly like to see the things I do benefit mankind.’

And if there was ever a time to make a difference in the development of nanotechnology it is now.