For Science, Nanotech Poses Big Unknowns

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By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2004

Nanotechnology, the hot young science of making invisibly tiny machines and materials, is stirring public anxiety and nascent opposition inspired by best-selling thrillers that have demonized the science -- and new studies suggesting that not everything in those novels is fantasy.

The technology, in which scientists manufacture things less than 1,000th the width of a human hair, promises smaller computers, stronger and lighter materials, even "nanobots" able to cruise through people's blood vessels to treat diseases. Billions of dollars are being pumped into the field, and products with science-fiction-like properties have already begun to hit the market.

But studies have also shown that nanoparticles can act as poisons in the environment and accumulate in animal organs. And the first two studies of the health effects of engineered nanoparticles, published in January, have documented lung damage more severe and strangely different than that caused by conventional toxic dusts.

The risks of nanoparticles may ultimately prove to be minor and avoidable, experts say. Nonetheless, in a move that industry supporters blame on a conflation of facts with popular fiction -- such as Michael Crichton's best-selling thriller "Prey," in which rogue nanoparticles wreak deadly havoc -- activists have begun to organize against the science.

Some in California are trying to block construction of a nanotech factory, noting that no government agency has developed safety rules for nano products. Others want a global moratorium on the field until the risks are better understood.

Now, realizing that public perception may be at a tipping point, the fledgling industry and government agencies are taking a novel tack, funding sociologists, philosophers and even ethicists to study the public's distrust of nano. Supporters of the approach say these experts will serve as the industry's conscience and ensure that the science moves forward responsibly. Others suspect it is an effort to defuse nano's critics.

Both sides agree the stakes are huge. Government officials have called nanotechnology the foundation for the "next industrial revolution," worth an estimated trillion dollars within the coming decade. But if nano's supporters play their cards wrong, experts say -- by belittling public fears as "irrational" or blundering into a health or environmental mishap -- the industry could find itself mired in a costly public relations debacle even worse than the one that turned genetically engineered crops into "Frankenfood."

"We can't risk making the same mistakes that were made with the introduction of biotechnology," said Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation, the nation's largest funder of nanotechnology research. "We have to do this benignly and equitably."

The struggle for public trust will be challenging, officials confess, given the frightening tales that have been spun about nano in recent years.

It started in 2000, when Bill Joy, co-founder of the computer giant Sun Microsystems, wrote a chilling and widely read article warning that self-replicating nanomachines could eventually overwhelm the human race and digest the living world into a mass of "gray goo" -- a scenario that many scientists, but not all, reject.

Then came "Prey." And in Dan Brown's No. 1 best-selling novel, "Angels & Demons," the Catholic Church denounces nanoscience as evil. (It has not, although Britain's Prince Charles has expressed alarm about the science.)

In December it seemed the industry might at last be shaking off its negative image: In an Oval Office ceremony, President Bush hailed the technology and signed a $3.7 billion bill to boost the research. But even as the president was signing that bill, researchers at the National Science Foundation across the Potomac were attending a meeting on nano's social and environmental risks.


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© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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