Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Like many developing technologies, nanotechnology is likely to be a source of many marvels and menaces. The latter have been better publicized than the former, so it is surprising that most Americans still have a positive view of nanotechnology. A new poll should encourage policy-makers to continue to foster the field’s growth, especially given its vast potential.

The positive attitudes of Americans toward nanotechnology were reflected in a first-of-its-kind survey released this week by researchers at North Carolina State University. The full report will be published in the next Journal of Nanoparticle Research. Eighty percent of the more than 1,500 persons polled by phone said they were not worried about nanotechnology; about 70 percent said they were either “somewhat” or “very” hopeful about it. Forty percent of respondents said they expected that the benefits of nanotechnology would outweigh its risks.

Few Americans fear the swarms of self-replicating, out-of-control nanobots, as depicted in Michael Crichton’s “Prey.” Far more were worried about losses of privacy to nano-sized surveillance devices, losses of jobs to new nanotechnology industries and losses of health to nano-sized particles.

Those concerns may have some merit, although John Marburger, the president’s science adviser, is confident that the existing regulatory agencies are keeping up with nanotech’s apparent dangers. As he noted, while the products of nanotechnology are as new as the processes making them, the actual materials are age-old. To a large degree, chemistry serves the same function as nanotechnology, but with less certainty and less precision.

Nanotechnology-based products already have reached the market, ranging from skin creams to tennis rackets. In the future, citizens are likely to see nanotechnology-based biological and chemical weapons detectors, cancer treatments and information-technology devices.

U.S. leaders are aware of nanotechnology’s great potential. There is a “tremendous cornucopia of opportunity [in nanotechnology] that every nation wants to develop,” according to Mr. Marburger. Last December, President Bush signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, which allocates $3.7 billion to research in the field over the next four years.

Mr. Marburger said that legislators see nanotechnology as a priority. The field’s potential marvels outweigh its potential menaces. The N.C. State poll should encourage policy-makers to continue to encourage its development.

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