Biochemistry 101
Article Discussion
Nov. 10, 2005

    It has become apparent, if not blatantly obvious, to me that nanotechnology is a rather enigmatic topic to most people. Some have heard the term but can’t really explain much of anything about it. Others can logically deduce that, given the prefix “nano-”, this topic is about technological innovations and developments on the nanometer scale. Some people are learning a bit about it in their education, specifically in science and/or technology courses. It seems that only a small percentage of people actually have a modest comprehension and understanding of what this relatively new field of science is actually about and how things work. In fact, in June, 2005, a writer named Stacy Lawrence published a relatively brief article in Technology Review magazine, and she provided a glimpse into some of the data surrounding the R&D of nanotechnology. The article, titled “Nanotech Grows Up,” also has another component: the results of a survey involving people’s knowledge of nanotechnology.

    The abovementioned survey, Lawrence says in a footnote, was conducted in March and April of 2004 by Venture Analytics. The results were originally published in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research. This survey involved 1,536 adults, all of whom were asked about their familiarity with nanotechnology. The breakdown, Lawrence reports, was as follows: 16 percent of those surveyed said that they had between “some” and “a lot” of knowledge of this technology; 32 percent reported having “a little” understanding, and 52 percent of respondents “reported no familiarity with nanotechnology.” Furthermore, she says, a similar study conducted in the United Kingdom revealed that not even one-third of the people questioned had any knowledge whatsoever (of nanotechnology).

    Lawrence also considers a related study in which a correlation is established between people’s level of knowledge regarding nanotechnology and their perception about  / attitude toward it. In summarizing the results, she says: “The more people knew about nanotech, the greater optimism they had about its potential benefits; the less knowledge, the more concern they had over potential risks.” Respondents were grouped into “high knowledge” (which we’ll call Group A) and “low knowledge” (Group B). The three “groupings” of opinions were “potential benefits are greater than the potential risks” (we’ll call this Positive), “potential risks are equal to the potential benefits” (Neutral) and “potential risks outweigh potential benefits” (Negative).

    Of those in Group A (“high knowledge”), roughly 50 percent fell into the Positive attitude category, about 35 percent were in the Neutral range and about 15 percent showed a generally Negative attitude. By comparison, of those in Group B (“low knowledge”), about 35 percent were Positive, about 40 percent were Neutral and roughly 25 percent were Negative.

    Lawrence considers these attitudinal and knowledge-based studies in relation to some other statistics, most significantly growth trends in (what she calls) “global nanotechnology public and private funding.” The bar graph displays statistics for 10 countries, and, specifically, the amount of change in funding from 2003 (to 2004). The countries included are Japan, the United States, Germany, the U.K., Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, China, France and Italy. All except for Australia showed an increase in funding (Australia’s decreased by 2 percent), and six of the 10 countries had a funding increase of between 114 and 289 percent.

    To summarize these statistics, she reports that R&D funding nearly doubled to more than $10 billion in the past year—and that number is expected to triple by 2008. Not only that, she says, but by that year, “more than $100 billion in products will likely involve some type of nanotechnology.” Again, though, she goes back to the surveys to drive home a point: Only about half of Americans know much of anything about nanotechnology, and yet look how much money is being poured into this new area of science. Reflecting on the apparent dichotomy between the huge amounts of money spent (both in the United States and nationwide) and the wide-ranging lack of public knowledge, Lawrence says: “Much has been made of the potential nanotech risks, from uncontrollable nanorobots to the breathing in of nanoparticles. Not surprisingly, public fears are directly correlated with the amount of knowledge that people have about nanotech: the less knowledge, the more fear” (emphasis added).

    And Lawrence is exactly right. While we shouldn’t blindly rush into nanotechnology, we should at least educate people to the point that they can tell fact from fiction, real risk from modern-day old wives’ tale. People can’t be expected to form any meaningful opinions about a topic—any topic—if they don’t know enough about it. There are potential risks of nanotechnology, the possibility of toxicity of new classes of nanosubstances, some of which, if inhaled or swallowed (digested), could damage cell-wall stability or interfere with the normal effectiveness of the immune system’s operation. And nanoparticles in drinking water could be hazardous to animals or even humans. But this is a far cry from the much more wild idea of “grey goo,” a so-called worst-case scenario of “global ecophagy” (consuming of the environment / ecosystem), in which out-of-control, self-replicating robots overtake and replace all living life (or at least humans) on Earth while building more of themselves. A similar idea, “green goo,” believes in the possibility of nanobiotechnology creating a self-replicating nanomachine or nanorobot that consumes all organic particles, creating a non-living organic mass. For science fiction, these ideas make great stories. For real science, however, let’s remain a little grounded before we go buying into the idea of robots running amok or black-hole-like machines sucking in all life as we know it. Lawrence’s article is a good, if short, correlation between attitudes, knowledge and actual monetary statistics as all of these relate to a developing technology. As she has argued, people are more likely to accept and be comfortable with a new idea when they know about it—and they can make more informed decisions, as well. It will help eradicate unrealistic and unfounded fears and foster discussion of those risks that may actually exist.


Lawrence, Stacy. “Nanotech Grows Up.” Journal of Nanoparticle Research (2005): 31.
           EBSCOhost Research Databases. EBSCO Publishing. Benedictine
           Library, Lisle, Ill. 10 Nov. 2005.