A new effort by industry leaders and others to engender public trust in nanotechnology, the young science of making invisibly small materials, has run into difficulties on the eve of its first meeting after environmental and citizen groups declined to join for now because of doubts the initiative will serve the public interest.
None of the three invited representatives of environmental groups has agreed to join the newly created International Council on Nanotechnology at its inaugural meeting in Houston today.
One said yesterday that he had asked that his name be removed from the membership list because the group -- funded almost entirely by industry -- seemed more interested in easing public jitters than in actually doing something about the potential risks of nanotechnology.
The early rift is emblematic of the difficulties facing the new science as it strives to gain public acceptance. The field, expected to become a trillion-dollar industry by 2012, promises a host of technological and medical advances. But it has also stirred fears because some of its tiny products appear to be toxic and many are not covered by environmental and occupational health regulations.
Nanoscientists and activists alike have said they want to avoid a replay of the debacle over genetically engineered food, widely viewed as a classic case of an emerging science that squandered an opportunity to gain public trust. But the troubles already facing nanotech's first efforts at conciliation indicate that the nascent field is still struggling with its image.
"The trust hurdle is probably the most critical right now," said David Rejeski of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
"There's a lot of work to be done to get all the players in the room," said Rejeski, who likened the current state of affairs to a junior high school dance in which everyone is awkwardly wondering who will be the first to take the floor. "It's kind of a social experiment."
Nanotechnology deals with products less than 100-billionths of a meter in size -- a few 10,000ths of the diameter of a human hair.
Some of the materials being created, such as cages of carbon atoms known as buckyballs, show promise as tools for environmental cleanup. Others, such as carbon nanotubes, are expected to revolutionize the electronics industry. A few materials are already being used in medical tests, stain-resistant fabrics and sunscreens.
But the peculiar chemical and electronic properties exhibited by these materials can cut both ways. Early research has shown that some manufactured nanoparticles are toxic in mice and fish. A recent report from Swiss Re, the giant Swiss insurance company, expressed grave concerns about liability issues that could arise from nanotech products. And a July report issued by Britain's Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering concluded that some nanoparticle-containing cosmetics and sunscreens ought to be removed from the market because of health risks.