Big Debate Over Small Science

Many Americans find nanotechnology "morally unacceptable," study says.


Feb. 27, 2008 — -- If scientists could produce a tiny robot that could travel through your body and heal damaged tissue, eradicate disease-carrying microbes, and even wipe out a cancerous tumor, would you support their efforts?

Maybe not, especially if you are an American. Skepticism of experimental science is rampant, and scholars across the land are struggling to understand why, and what they can do to change attitudes. Studies sponsored by the National Science Foundation have found a widespread suspicion among the public that too many scientists are trying to "play God" by manipulating life, and that the government is inept when it comes to protecting its people.

Yet those same studies show that the vast majority of people believe science has enriched their lives, and will continue to do so.

It's not hard to see why so many have conflicting views of science. We've been burned too many times by pharmaceutical drugs that were found to do more harm than good, after millions had already used them. Biotechnology promises to ease our suffering, but many fear the real goal is to create super-humans, and super-warriors. Evolution, which few in the academic world doubt, has alienated millions because they fear it undermines their religion.

And now we are plunging into a new frontier that the director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies calls "science's next big thing" – nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the science of the very small, controlling matter one atom at a time, where the laws of physics enter a strange new world. This is a field that is so new, and so poorly understood by the public, that researchers must first define it for participants in their surveys before they can ask their opinions. And many, it turns out, are less than enchanted.

In one recent study of attitudes in the United States and Europe, only 29.5 percent of 1,015 adult Americans said they found nanotechnology "morally acceptable." If that really is typical of the whole population, then far more Americans find nanotechnology morally unacceptable than participants in France, where 72.1 percent found it acceptable, and other European countries.

The difference, according to the researchers, is religion.

"The United States is a country where religion plays an important role in peoples' lives," Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication told participants at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "European countries have a much more secular perspective."

Scheufele conducted the research with Elizabeth Corley of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University. The study, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, also showed that American participants rated God as much more important in their lives than participants in the U.K. and continental Europe. Scheufele believes that is largely why Americans have more of a problem with the morality of nanotechnology than Europeans.

And he emphasizes that the participants in the study had been adequately informed of the potential benefits of nanotechnology.

"They still oppose it," he said. "They are rejecting it based on religious beliefs. The issue isn't about informing these people. They are informed."

That poses a sticky problem for the gurus of nanotechnology who hope to convince the world that this is a good thing. There is much promise, but like any new technology, some risk.

By manipulating matter on the scale of one billionth of a meter, or less than one-100,000th the width of a human hair, strange things happen. Some solids turn into liquids at room temperature, some opaque substances become transparent, insulators like silicon become conductors, and so on. Scientists are able to reshape matter at the molecular level with atomic force microscopes and scanning tunneling microscopes which can literally push individual atoms around.

That has opened the door to new possibilities in fields ranging from medicine, environmental protection, and, of course, war. Some see a world in which cancer is eliminated by tiny machines that can find and treat a tumor, or even rewire a brain crippled by Alzheimer's disease.

The noted futurist Ray Kurzweil argues that science should someday even produce synthetic human cells that will render death, and even aging, obsolete.

That's a bit far-fetched in the eyes of many scientists, but Kurzweil makes a pretty strong case in his best-selling book, "The Singularity is Near," which describes a world in which man and machine become one.

But nanotechnology isn't in the future — it's happening now.

The National Science Foundation predicts that the global marketplace for goods and services using nanotechnologies will grow to $1 trillion by 2015. More than 500 products on the market today incorporate nanotechnology, ranging from self-cleaning windows to sunscreens.

Those are relatively low-profile applications and public reaction has been so muted that it makes a lot of scientists uneasy. In an effort to head off public criticism down the road, scientists are trying to figure out how to get their message across in this fledgling field. That has led to the creation of organizations like the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a joint venture by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trust.

Nanotechnology comes with great hype, much promise, and some risk. Machines built to operate on such a small scale could be engineered to self-replicate, like human cells, thus raising the specter of a world run amok. And it now appears that many find the idea of altering matter, and tinkering with organic structures, "morally unacceptable."

If you thought the fight over evolution was bloody, wait until this issue hits the public fan.

Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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