Issue Date: April 21, 2008
Nano TV Series Debuts
IMAGINE A CHICKEN processing plant that had been shut down because of a Salmonella incident that killed several children reopening, thanks to a new nanotechnology-based microbe-detecting packaging material that promises to keep food safer. Now imagine further the same plant also using a new type of edible coating that contains nanoparticles and makes its fried chicken less fattening. Would you feel safe buying and eating the chicken it produces?
The scenario is hypothetical, but the social, ethical, and legal implications of it are real. These and many more situations are debated by panels of experts in the new TV series "Nanotechnology: The Power of Small," which airs this month on U.S. public broadcasting stations. Presented by Fred Friendly Seminars and Oregon Public Broadcasting with funding from the National Science Foundation, the series aims to inform the public about nanotech by discussing the societal implications of this emerging technology, which is part of a growing number of consumer products like clothing and sporting goods.
The series premiered on April 2 at an event hosted by the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and NSF. It features three episodes that explore the potential of nanotechnology to affect privacy, human health, and the environment, respectively.
Communicating information about nanotechnology is challenging because a lot of the technology is built deep into products and is not directly visible to people. The new TV series aims to show how nanotechnology is important at the core of things that touch our everyday lives, says George M. Whitesides, a chemistry professor at Harvard University. Whitesides is a member of the show's panel on privacy.
"I think one of the great outcomes of nanotech is not going to be that sort of single point that is easily visualized, but it's going to be the assembly of sciences and technologies that are interacting with one another around a common shared theme," he tells C&EN. As is evidenced by the range of people who are part of the series' panels, the interesting developments will be those at the interfaces of traditional disciplines.
Whitesides explains that some of the questions discussed in the series center on how technology impacts society. For example, what happens when technology allows for information to become ubiquitous and free?
Nanotechnology has the potential to offer enormous benefits to society, but like any new technology, it comes with risks—something the series also explores. "Who benefits? Who bears the risks? Those social questions immediately arise," says Richard Denison, a senior scientist with the nonprofit organization Environmental Defense Fund. Denison, who is part of the show's environment panel, applauds the producer's effort to assemble diverse panels and "really air the issues."
The societal concerns of nanotechnology have been considered all along, but they haven't been given the prominence necessary to prevent a public backlash that might be based on a dearth of information rather than on solid data, Denison says. "I think there's been a bit of a game of catch-up played by NSF and others to try to create that right balance," he adds.
The series does a nice job of balancing the perceived hazards of nanotechnology with the benefits that it has to offer, say several experts who participated in the show or who have had a chance to view it. "I thought the scenarios were engaging and certainly made everyone on the panels think carefully about the potential benefits, as well as the potential risks, that might be posed by nanotechnology," says Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office.
"The reason 'Power of Small' is so thrilling is that this television series tries to look at the world as it will be in the future and ensure that nanotechnology will enable it to be a better, environmentally cleaner, and medically more advanced place for everyone. And for that reason, I am proud to be a part of it," says Andrew D. Maynard, chief science adviser for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Wilson Center. Maynard and Teague are both part of the show's environment panel.
Many scientists say they have an obligation to bring information about their work to the attention of society, and a TV series like "Power of Small" could go a long way to help educate the public. "It is not only a case of informing and educating people but also a case of engaging them, so they actually become part of the process rather than just recipients of information," Maynard emphasizes. Many people are not interested in learning how a new technology works; they want to know what it will do for them, he adds. "It's a case of finding a hook that is going to interest and engage people," he explains.
When it comes to educating or engaging the public in nanotechnology, we can learn a lot from our experience with communicating research on the human genome, says Val Giddings, a consultant specializing in biotech and nanotech who did not work on the TV series. Many years ago, in his former position as vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, Giddings says he offered to share his experience with the NanoBusiness Alliance, a nanotechnology industry association, because "many of the kinds of policy and public acceptance issues that had swirled around agricultural biotech were also going to be relevant to nanotech."
THREE IMPORTANT lessons can be learned from genomics research, Giddings says. "If you want to communicate a complex, abstract topic to vast numbers of people who don't find it intrinsically interesting, you've got to find an emotional hook. You've got to find a human story," he points out. It is probably easier to do that with genomics information than with most nanotech applications, he notes, "but that just means it is all that much more important to do it, to get it out of the realm of the abstract and make it concrete."
Scientists also need to confront misrepresentations and scare tactics, Giddings says. "When professional protesters get in there with their scaremongering, it is very important to whack them," he says. That said, he notes that it's also important to "be honest and open about the uncertainties and creative about ways to address and resolve them."
The show is enjoyable and presents interesting dilemmas, but it is unlikely to have huge appeal in the mass commercial audience for TV, Giddings says. "Basically, it's a bunch of talking heads. That doesn't compete very well with stuff blowing up or soap opera shenanigans," he laughs. Nonetheless, it will likely find an audience with public TV viewers, and that includes the opportunity to appear before influential decisionmakers and folks who will have an impact on policy, he notes.
To find out when "Power of Small" is playing in your area, or to watch clips of the TV series online, go to www.powerofsmall.org.
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