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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: May 2013

17 - Nanotechnology and the media: front page or no story?


In the mid 90s, the combination of Prince Charles' fears about ‘grey goo’ and Michael Crichton's novel The Swarm served to increase fears that nanotechnology would be the latest in a series of late twentieth-century science scares that would hinder if not completely delay development and application of the needed technology. The fact that science communication was still in its infancy and that many of the limited pool of practitioners had been involved in the nuclear and GM debates added to an air of near fatalism. It was feared that only one incident of, for example, toxic nanoparticle release would suffice to push public opinion decisively and irreversibly against the technology. In this chapter, drawing on my experience as a public relations practitioner rather than an academic, I will investigate the reality of the situation and come to the conclusion that this is far too simplistic a view and furthermore, that nanotechnology has had a fairly easy ride in the media and is far from top of the agenda for even specialist journalists. This avoidance of scandal has enabled nanotechnology to put down such strong roots and already deliver such tangible benefits that I believe its future is secure. Any future problems will be viewed by the media on a case-by-case basis and not lead to condemnation of the technology per se. The chapter is based on a series of situation reviews presented by the author to the European Commission-funded NanoBio-RAISE and Nanomed Round Table projects during the 2005–2010 period.

The first issue seems to be that those involved in ‘protecting’ the image of nanotechnology have failed to see the ‘bigger’ picture. Naturally they believe that nanotechnology is one of the main issues in science and thus of major importance to the media. Nothing could be further from the truth. In one of the greatest eras of scientific advance, nanotechnology is competing for ‘share of voice’ with topics such as cloning, the Human Genome Project, HIV research, general medical advances, particle physics and more recently global warming and climate change.

Key resources
European Science Foundation 2005
Azonano, 2005
New Scientist 2005
Project on Emerging Technologies 2005
Project on Emerging Technologies 2007
Nanopublic 2008
Frank, Swain 2010