Nanotechnology researchers urged to speculate more

In the November 2006 issue of Nano Today, researcher-turned-science-journalist Jason Palmer urges nanotechnology researchers to open up to the public about the long-term promise of their nanotech work:

In this sense, it is as important to consider and discuss what can be done as it is to rule out what cannot. Because they are careful and precise about what they claim, many academics may not be familiar or comfortable with talking in this way about their research. In fact, the larger academic journals strongly discourage such an approach; they want the hard science and leave the speculations about applications for other media, because an unreasonable expectation may later serve to make the work seem dated or unreliable.

The bigger picture may also appear for instance in grant proposals, but because of the limitation to the near-term and the definite, it is still not the kind of publicity that will be effective with the public. Nevertheless, opportunities to tackle these applications and speculations are ever more available in the digital domain, where scientists, science fans, and consumers meet informally and discuss matters through blogs and chat rooms. Research group or researcher websites are widespread but very rarely used as a medium to discuss the relationship between research and the wider world.

Another route is through interviews and press releases arising from university research, and large conferences where the press are known to linger. It is here I think that academics can quietly but effectively put their stamp on what is and what is not possible. Journalists in particular are looking for the longer-term implications of scientific work to make it more palatable and often more exciting reading for a broader audience. Just a few words here and there about perspectives and possibilities will be disseminated farther and faster than pages of convincing results.

The public at large is more tech-savvy all the time. A failure of the public to understand at least the basics of the science that underpins the technology and products at their disposal is a failure most often not in teaching, but in publicizing. People in general can only know what they are told through the media that touch their lives. The ample opportunities to clarify discoveries and their potential futures should be taken, lest we all find ourselves on the back foot trying to sell hard truths that have less influence than marketable exaggerations and falsehoods.

Well, that’s right. The public — often, the source of research funds — is turned off if researchers only make public statements about what is not possible, always sounding discouraging. Some of them need to step up and tell the public what positive longer-term applications are reasonable to expect, and when. Unfortunately, their colleagues often punish them for doing so, treating the statements as overpromising in order to get their own work funded. It’s a mess.

And it would be nice if everyone understood that in order to make progress on ambitious engineering projects, such as productive nanosystems, one must discuss ambitious engineering goals. It’s the first step, a required part of the engineering process. Some scientists, as opposed to engineers/technologists, don’t seem to be comfortable with this. —Christine

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