Critics, however -from Prince Charles to Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton - fear that nanomachines could run amok and turn the surface of the Earth into an uninhabitable morass. Environmentalists also question the safety of nanoparticles.
The debate, like that on genetically modified food, is noisy but often uninformative. Before the technology has even emerged, the debate has largely become polarised into utopian and dystopian visions.
In a report published today (28th July 2003), a team at the University of Sheffield funded by the Economic and Social Research Council investigates the scientific reality behind nanotechnology, and looks at the hopes and the fears that it raises - and provides a sober assessment of the possibilities that will help both sides of the debate.
The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology is the result of collaboration between a social scientist and a natural scientist: Professor Stephen Wood of the ESRC Centre of Innovation and Organisation (COI), and Professor Richard Jones of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, with Alison Geldart (COI), all at the University of Sheffield. It describes the emerging atom-by-atom science of nanotechnology and discusses the sweeping social and economic changes it might bring.
The word nanotechnology has been used to refer to everything from mundane, here and now applications, like stain-resistant trousers, to the most speculative extrapolations, such as self-replicating nano-robots. The report carefully distinguishes between what these technologies are delivering now, what may be possible in the future, and what is likely to remain beyond the bounds of feasibility.
The role of social science in nanotechnology's development should be more than one of smoothing the path for its acceptance. Social science can help construct the lens (or lenses) through which we see nanotechnology, and understand its implications so these can be anticipated and incorporated into development.
Nanotechnology is also an opportunity to investigate broader themes, such as an evaluation of the drivers behind the technology development process, how society deals with risks under uncertainty, and issues of inequities and economic divides.
Easily readable, the report serves as a primer for those wanting to know what nanotechnology means. For those already engaged in the technology, boosters and doubters alike, it will become a major reference.
The full report is available in PDF format by email - contact the ESRC Press Office.
For further information contact:
Professor Stephen Wood on 0207-272-1558 or 0771-7377-185 email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Professor Richard Jones on 0114-2224530 email: email@example.com.
Or Lesley Lilley, Rachel Blackford or Anna Hinds at the ESRC on 01793-413119/413126/413122.
Notes for editors
1. The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology, by Professor Stephen Wood and Professor Richard Jones, is available from the ESRC Orderline on 0845-456-0076 or online at http://www.
2. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £76 million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at http://www.
3. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at http://www.regard.ac.uk.