David Rejeski in Orion Magazine:
By 2014, nanotechnology is expected to account for over $1.4 trillion of global economic production. Like most technological revolutions, this one will have some downsides. Animal studies have shown that nanoparticles can enter the bloodstream, cross the blood-brain barrier, and damage tissue and DNA—reasons for concern, and for more research.
Given the size of the global investment, possible risks, and what’s at stake for our lives, our economy, and the environment, you might ask: “Shouldn’t we be having a conversation about this technology?” Yet recent surveys have shown that 70 to 80 percent of Americans have heard “nothing” or “very little” about nanotech, despite its potentially transformative effects on medicine, agriculture, computation, defense, and energy production.
This is nothing new. When was the last time the government asked you how to spend your taxes on science? That didn’t happen with nuclear power, genetics, or agricultural biotechnology. For people who lived through the biotech revolution, nanotech is a flashback: the collision of rapidly advancing technology with lagging public understanding, which could scuttle billions of dollars in public and private sector investment in nanotech and jeopardize some real breakthroughs, like better treatments for cancer and far cheaper solar energy.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In nanotechnology we find an unprecedented opportunity to do things differently, to develop a social contract between the public and the scientific community that is built on openness and trust.