Let’s make small talk

The public debate over nanotechnology has started, but needs to be widened, says Ian Pearson.

Nanotechnologies offer potentially huge benefits to society, industry, the environment and health. They can help us improve our quality of life and respond to some of the big issues that we face in the 21st century such as climate change, world poverty and disease. They can help us have better lives, as we live longer.

As the BBC documentary series Visions of the Future illustrated, nanotechnologies can bring to mind fantastical concepts — unsmashable cars, uncollapsible buildings, ultra-light jet planes. Those notions may or may not come to pass but for now you are more likely to find the technologies in the form of, for example, antimicrobial dressings for wounds, graffiti-resistant paint on walls or fire-resistant coatings on clothing.

The UK nanotechnologies industry contributes £23bn to the economy. Yet more than 60 per cent of people in the UK have never even heard of it.

That is something I want to change. Some of the issues where nanotechnologies could potentially have a massive impact are among the largest political questions that we face. And we will need to be able to answer them together, as a democratic society.

We need an effort on the part of scientists to find platforms to explain clearly what nanotechnology is, how it works and where it could lead. And willingness on the part of the public is required, to share their views with scientists.

Nanotechnologies may be technically complex but their potential effect on our lives is too important for them to be discussed only among scientists.

That is all the more so because, while nanotechnologies could produce great benefits for society, their irresponsible development could also do great harm.

We must all — from government and research councils to industry, the third sector and the media — work together to get those discussions going. The government has already made a good start on this.

It learnt a lot from the Nanodialogues exercise, which brought together members of the public with scientists and others with detailed knowledge of nanotechnologies for in-depth discussions. I’m glad to see that others are now picking up the baton.

When the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was created last June, we realised a key part of our mission was to get people in this country excited about science. As part of our drive to engage the public in dialogue about the role of science in society, we must do two things. First, we need to understand public aspirations and concerns surrounding nanotechnology and other advances in science, so that we can identify what the wider benefits to society might be. And second, we need to act on them, for example, by identifying risks and regulating appropriately.

Innovations in nanotechnologies are increasingly being recognised as having the potential to make radical improvements on a truly global scale.

For example, nanotechnologies could help reduce our carbon footprint with better insulation, affordable solar panels and hydrogen-powered vehicles; they could also purify water more cheaply, making it safer to drink in developing countries. And there is vast potential for creating non-invasive devices that can detect diseases such as cancer at an early stage.

That is why the research councils are jointly funding a cross-council programme. This will provide an additional £50m in areas where the UK nanotechnologies research base can make a significant impact on issues of societal importance, such as energy and ageing, and look into health and safety issues too. This is on top of the £862m funding for the digital economy, energy and ageing that the councils announced in December, some of which will also be used for investigative research.

Some of this innovative technology has already arrived. Oxonica, an Oxford University spin-out company and a leading international nanomaterials group, has created a nanocatalyst for diesel engines.

This reduces fuel consumption by five-10 per cent and reduces particulate emissions by up to 15 per cent. The product has already been adopted in the UK by Stagecoach Group.

We want to encourage more spin-outs such as Oxonica. And we want more UK businesses to ‘pull-through’ the ideas generated by the research base.

One strong message that has come from the public is that people want to know who is funding what and why. This is something that they clearly have a right to know.

It is also clear that the public has a strong interest in science and technologies that could have a direct impact on their lives and, indeed, could go on to benefit all of us — both in this country and abroad. Our ability to facilitate genuine public dialogue and debate will be a measure of our success.

Nanotechnology is a government priority. We have set up a ministerial group to maintain momentum and ensure we look at the whole picture, as we progress.

We have produced a government statement on nanotechnologies that commits us to being open and transparent and to helping the country derive maximum benefit from emerging technologies. But we also acknowledge that we must consistently address the aspirations and concerns of the public and safeguard health, safety and the environment.

By fulfilling these commitments, we can all benefit from the dazzling developments that potentially come from nanotechnologies.

Edited extracts of a speech given by Ian Pearson, minister for science and innovation, at last month’s Which? conference