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Does nanotechnology need PR?

Pearl Chin, Foresight Institute Research Fellow and former President, is now blogging at BestThinking and in a recent post discusses the future of nanotechnology. From “Nanotechnology Needs PR“:

I was invited to a select salon at Science House with Hybrid Reality Institute to discuss the future of nanotechnology a few weeks ago. It turned out to be a lot of fun meeting interesting people and speaking about what I love but it did dawn on me that during that dinner that people thought nanotechnology was no longer happening. …

Now I have not written about nanotechnology for a couple of years now and most of the hype done by others in this sector which I did not care for has died down much in the last several years. This does not by any means nanotechnology has stalled. You just have not heard about it so much because the PR machines stalled because those responsible left for greener nanotechnology pastures. …

James Jorasch, founder of the Science House, at that salon mentioned that perhaps nanotechnology needed a PR campaign again and I would have to agree. However, it may need some new blood and energy injected into it.

Does Nanotechnology Need PR, and, if so, what kind of PR? Since its founding in 1986, Foresight has focused on advanced nanotechnology—high throughput atomically precise manufacturing—what it will be like, how we get there, the opportunities it offers, and the dangers we want to avoid. Our principal efforts have been the Feynman Prizes for progress toward Feynman’s vision of advanced nanotechnology, our Foresight Institute Molecular Nanotechnology Conferences, and the Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems.

Meanwhile, there has been enormous progress in the broad area of nanoscale science and technology, supported in large part by the US National Nanotechnology Initiative and similar programs in other countries. Technologies developed from this research have already led to a large number of consumer products identified by their manufacturers as nanotechnology-based. As of early 2011, The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies has identified 1014 such consumer products. Looking ahead a few years, the Foresight Nanotechnology Challenges focused on the near-term and intermediate-term development of nanotechnologies (not necessarily atomically precise) that could address major challenges facing humanity.

Given that “nanotechnology” is an umbrella term covering a range of topics, is Pearl right that nanotechnology needs a PR campaign, and one with new energy? If so, what kinds of efforts would be most effective? Do we need to do a better job making the long-term goal of advanced nanotechnology more vivid? Plotting paths to get there from where we are now? Highlighting exciting laboratory progress and current applications? Identifying intermediate goals that might accelerate progress toward long-term goals? What efforts should Foresight prioritize?

3 Responses to “Does nanotechnology need PR?”

  1. Hilary Sutcliffe Says:

    Does Nano need a PR campaign – yes and no.

    No it doesn’t need a promotional campaign trying to sell it to society. That could easily backfire.

    Yes the many nanotechnologies, their individual applications and potential do need to be explained better and more imaginatively to the public, and the public need to have opportunities to be more involved in shaping the way that it is used, particularly in the more controversial areas.

    In addition those using the technology to enable their products need to be more open about their use, the real benefits it brings, not the spurious benefits to the companies themselves at the expense of the public. They need to be more responsible in the way they develop and use nano and explain the benefit, toxicology and uncertainty in such a way that those who are interested can easily access the information.

    So No to a PR puffing up nano as the best thing since sliced bread, but yes to a two way programme of communication and engagement. We started this a few years ago with a public website, developed with the aim to be impartial and informative, but couldn’t get it funded. Take a look if you are interested on http://www.nanoandme.org

  2. flashgordon Says:

    I keep thinking of the lesson, or idea of Isaac Asimov in his foundation book(the first one). Science and technology is kind of an invisible hand. There’s nothing anyone can really do much about it. People try to solve their problems only to find that this kind of invisible hand just seems to solve the problems for them. In the book, there’s a group of ‘encyclopedists’ who are put on a remote planet; they are surrounded by hungry empires split off from the dieing galactic empire that once ruled with strength. The encyclopedists try to influence and argue over their problems, but, as they find, things just kind of solve themselves. First there’s a religious thing that solves itself; then, there’s an economic, well, then there should be a scientific; but, Isaac goes in a different direction; he comes up with this mule which makes a mess of the Harry Seldon prophecies; it’s kind of interesting that Isaac Asimov doesn’t try to write the future galactic history as a kind of science problem that just kind of solves itself.

    Drexler and Co have tried to talk about it, but society has partly ignored them; but, they’ve also had to fund nanotech anyways. Drexler and Co have tried to talk tuff and say we need people to discuss ethics and all; this starts an effor to do so; but, these things whither away because society is stuck in its ways; those ethicsal issues are vague anyways and end up solving themselves.

  3. Pete Dunn Says:

    This is an interesting question, especially for those of us who work in high-tech communications and PR. A couple of thoughts come to mind.

    First, think about the question this way – does information technology need PR? Not really, because there are so many IT companies who are doing PR for their products and services. The collective effect of all these individual efforts is more effective than a generic IT industry program could be, because they’re talking about specific implementations of technology that produce tangible results. And the more tangible the results, the better the PR.

    For example, an IT advocate or industry association could talk about how computers are beginning to be capable of higher-level interactivity and sophisticated language analysis. Cool enough, but nowhere near as compelling or intuitive as IBM having its Watson system successfully play Jeopardy against human opponents. That brilliant, unabashed publicity stunt was a tangible, fun demonstration of the potential of next-generation IT, and it captured the attention and imagination of many millions of people (including some who will want to do business with IBM as a result).

    Second, the nanotechnology sector is extremely diverse, and the innovations are often way upstream from consumer-facing companies. This makes it difficult to create some equivalent of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, or the Consumer Electronics Association. There just isn’t enough common ground or business benefit to put together a broad-based outreach campaign, although nanotech groups can provide useful support with industry statistics, access to expert analysis, and events that bring together innovators and media (and websites like Nano and Me, which highlight accomplishments).

    Ultimately, the best PR for nanotechnology is the introduction of nanotech-based products that make people’s lives better – a coat that saves a firefighter’s life, a drug delivery system that lets kids avoid injections, a battery that makes electric cars practical. Fortunately, this is already under way, and I suspect that five years from now, no one will be worried about a lack of publicity for nanotechnology and its accomplishments.

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