Why it is important to communicate and report on nanotechnology

Why it is important to communicate and report on nanotechnology

Communicating what is happening within the scientific domain is important for any sub-discipline of science, and science in general, as it helps to better educate the general public about what science can do, its effects in real life, and it helps to debunk a few common myths that have arose in recent years—such as ill-informed concepts that climate change is not real and vaccines cause autism. Let’s be honest, most people know at least one person who is scientifically misguided. So, anyone within the scientific space knows that is important to document interesting academic advances, industry developments and anything that has real-world implications in a factual and scientifically accurate way. It is whys science communication—often referred to as sci comm—has gained a lot popularity in recent years.

Yet, whilst accurate and effective communication is important across all scientific sectors, there is a more urgent need for effective communications in the nanotechnology space. There are many reasons for this. The first being that it is underrepresented compared to many other areas. Whilst there is me and a few others who put a lot of effort into communicating what is actually happening across the nanotechnology space—i.e. no hyping up the sector, and providing factual information—we are significantly outnumbered by those who work in other areas of science, such as in the life sciences and medical areas, and even general chemistry and other ‘pure’ hard science areas.

The reason being that many people don’t understand nanotechnology from a fundamental, first principle level, and this stems from not enough representation at the undergraduate level. I can understand why, nanotechnology involves some chemistry, some physics, and some engineering (and in some cases biology), so it is a specialist applied area of science that for some will be hard to teach. Yet, there are many people who will make comments about the nanotechnology sector and write articles on its future. However, from my personal experience, 90% of these don’t understand what is really happening ‘on the ground’ in the nanotechnology industry and state applications that are not going to happen. Whilst it’s great that people take an interest in how the nanotechnology sector is doing, hyping up the industry does more harm than good.

The second is that there is a general misunderstanding by the general public about nanotechnology, some of which stems from negative press and ill-informed articles. Many people still think that nanomaterials are unsafe despite over two decades worth of safety studies and standards being put in place. Many people involved in science now know that nanomaterials are just as safe as any other chemical or functional material, but there is still the fear within the general public that CNTs could be the new asbestos because of its high aspect ratio (try removing them from a composite matrix!), or graphene could get into the lungs and cause damage—a theory which was debunked by a recent paper. But how many non-scientific publications picked up on this? Very few. But let some information come out there could be a 0.1% chance of a nanomaterial causing harm and the mainstream media would jump all over it in a flash. This is the problem. These are also the challenges that those within the nanotechnology space, as well as us who communicate about it, face all the time. Unfortunately, negative news sells, and with there being more unknowns in the nanotechnology sector than other more-established scientific areas, it bears the brunt of negative science news—even if many know it not to be true.

So, for one, people need to stop hyping up the industry. That won’t help. The industry will move as it does, and it is currently moving along very nicely. Secondly, more effort is needed to not only debunk the myths that are put out there, but more effort is needed to present factual information that represents the industry, the research climate and the whole picture of the field of nanotechnology. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, whilst due diligence is good in any industry, there comes a point when people need to stop finding negatives for the sake of finding negatives and focus on the positives that the industry can bring (big or small). Without the hype, and the subsequent negativity when this hype is not met, the industry will flourish a lot better, along with it an increased confidence in the industry from the general public.

Written by Liam Critchley.