The interest in nanoscience and nanotechnology is growing rapidly, both in academia and in industry. Nanotechnology is also leaving the seclusion of the research laboratory and entering into our daily life, for example through marketed nano‐products and novel medical treatments that have reached the clinical stage. At times, excitement and hype accompany news from the nanotechnology world: it is often described as the 'next big thing' or the 'new industrial revolution' by entrepreneurs. Concurrently, voices of concern and questions regarding the safety of nanotechnology are raised by environmental activists, trade unions, ethicists, and other members of the society. In this context, the role of communicators dealing with nanotechnology becomes especially important, but also complex. The interdisciplinary nature of this technology, the complexity of some technical aspects of it, together with its apparently endless range of potential applications make communicating nanotechnology challenging. The temptation to present it as the 'holy grail' of all problems is strong, yet the current science clearly indicates that nanotechnology is still in its initial stages of development for most applications. Scientists and communicators face the hard task of carefully balancing tones of excitement and caution, especially remembering lessons learned in the past when dealing with emerging technologies, such as GMOs. Nevertheless, the opportunity exists to engage the public in learning about nanotechnology through a responsible communication and stimulate a necessary debate around this emerging technology.

Here we report the experience and some key lessons learned during a European ́Science in Society ́ project set up to deepen the understanding of environmental, occupational health and safety risks and ethical aspects of nanotechnology of different sectors of society. The project brings together environmental NGOs, trade unions, academic researchers and other stakeholders. As scientists expert in nanotechnology our role in the project was to build the capacity of the participants both in understanding the nanoscience and to comprehend the potential applications. We wrote a set of background documents describing the fundamentals of nanotechnology and its application to fields of high societal impact, such as energy, environment and medicine. In addition we organized a workshop bringing in experts in each field where there was both presentations and dialogue. The documents that we wrote are aimed at an extremely mixed audience, comprising expert scientists, people with some scientific background (but not expert in nanotechnology), or with only basic science training. Each group came with a particular interest in the nanotechnology field, be it ethical, environmental, sociological or related to a specific organization e.g., trade unions. The attitude to nanotechnology of this mixed audience was very varied, from enthusiastic, to cautious, to skeptical, to plain negative. Communication with such an audience is difficult but necessary, and as scientists we were faced with this challenge. The main lessons learnt were: (i) Language is a big issue both in terms of impenetrable scientific jargon, and where the same terminology has a specific scientific meaning and a wider general meaning (for instance the term ́risk ́). (ii) Good, solid science doesn’t need hype. An audience of this type is negatively impressed by information that is hyped, whereas it benefits from information that is based on truthful scientific facts, described with a simple yet accurate language; (iii) Many of the underlying issues raised when discussing about nanotechnology are not specific to it but rather to technology development and commercialisation in general (e.g. safety concerns); (iv) It is beneficial to describe nanotechnology as an evolution, rather then a revolution, and to refer to history of other technological developments. This concept helps to show the historical progress of science, and how a new emerging technology like nanotechnology is actually the result of a research path that started long ago; (v) A skeptical audience can be a positive challenge as it forces communicators to address fundamental questions; (vi) Fears and skepticisms need to be listened to, and discussed when possible, not dismissed.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Communicating nanotechnology
Opportunities and challenges

Luisa Filipponi   University of Aarhus

Duncan Sutherland   University of Aarhus

The interest in nanoscience and nanotechnology is growing rapidly, both in academia and in industry. Nanotechnology is also leaving the seclusion of the research laboratory and entering into our daily life, for example through marketed nano‐products and novel medical treatments that have reached the clinical stage. At times, excitement and hype accompany news from the nanotechnology world: it is often described as the 'next big thing' or the 'new industrial revolution' by entrepreneurs. Concurrently, voices of concern and questions regarding the safety of nanotechnology are raised by environmental activists, trade unions, ethicists, and other members of the society. In this context, the role of communicators dealing with nanotechnology becomes especially important, but also complex. The interdisciplinary nature of this technology, the complexity of some technical aspects of it, together with its apparently endless range of potential applications make communicating nanotechnology challenging. The temptation to present it as the 'holy grail' of all problems is strong, yet the current science clearly indicates that nanotechnology is still in its initial stages of development for most applications. Scientists and communicators face the hard task of carefully balancing tones of excitement and caution, especially remembering lessons learned in the past when dealing with emerging technologies, such as GMOs. Nevertheless, the opportunity exists to engage the public in learning about nanotechnology through a responsible communication and stimulate a necessary debate around this emerging technology.

Here we report the experience and some key lessons learned during a European ́Science in Society ́ project set up to deepen the understanding of environmental, occupational health and safety risks and ethical aspects of nanotechnology of different sectors of society. The project brings together environmental NGOs, trade unions, academic researchers and other stakeholders. As scientists expert in nanotechnology our role in the project was to build the capacity of the participants both in understanding the nanoscience and to comprehend the potential applications. We wrote a set of background documents describing the fundamentals of nanotechnology and its application to fields of high societal impact, such as energy, environment and medicine. In addition we organized a workshop bringing in experts in each field where there was both presentations and dialogue. The documents that we wrote are aimed at an extremely mixed audience, comprising expert scientists, people with some scientific background (but not expert in nanotechnology), or with only basic science training. Each group came with a particular interest in the nanotechnology field, be it ethical, environmental, sociological or related to a specific organization e.g., trade unions. The attitude to nanotechnology of this mixed audience was very varied, from enthusiastic, to cautious, to skeptical, to plain negative. Communication with such an audience is difficult but necessary, and as scientists we were faced with this challenge. The main lessons learnt were: (i) Language is a big issue both in terms of impenetrable scientific jargon, and where the same terminology has a specific scientific meaning and a wider general meaning (for instance the term ́risk ́). (ii) Good, solid science doesn’t need hype. An audience of this type is negatively impressed by information that is hyped, whereas it benefits from information that is based on truthful scientific facts, described with a simple yet accurate language; (iii) Many of the underlying issues raised when discussing about nanotechnology are not specific to it but rather to technology development and commercialisation in general (e.g. safety concerns); (iv) It is beneficial to describe nanotechnology as an evolution, rather then a revolution, and to refer to history of other technological developments. This concept helps to show the historical progress of science, and how a new emerging technology like nanotechnology is actually the result of a research path that started long ago; (v) A skeptical audience can be a positive challenge as it forces communicators to address fundamental questions; (vi) Fears and skepticisms need to be listened to, and discussed when possible, not dismissed.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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