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Shirley Malcom: Helping the Public Connect with Nanotechnology
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It is a challenge that accompanies many major, modern scientific advances: When a breakthrough brings rich potential rewards, substantial ethical and social concerns, and a high-risk of hype, how do scientists build a connection with the public to provide trustworthy education and to address concerns?
Shirley Malcom, the head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, has confronted the dilemma before—and has been part of a successful public engagement plan around the Human Genome Project in the late 1990s. Now, with nanotechnology emerging as a field of extraordinary promise, Malcom believes scientists and other nanotech leaders should undertake public engagement today if they want public understanding and acceptance in the future.
Malcom was one member of a panel of experts who spoke recently to the Congressional Nanotechnology Caucus. Society must seek a way to balance the benefits and the risks of nanotechnology, she told the audience, and "the public's need to understand the broader impacts and support the research [must be brought] into the center of the discussion."
Nanotechnology is a manufacturing process requiring the manipulation of atoms and the assembly of molecules—a process that allows building products or machines in the scale of nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Development of such products is expected to have a dramatic impact in fields as wide-ranging as health care, information technology, energy, defense and security, not to mention cosmetics and apparel. By some estimates, the global market for nano products could exceed $1 trillion by 2015.
The purpose of the Congressional Nanotechnology Caucus is to promote the development of nanotechnology and to assure that the United States stays competitive in the field. It seeks to bring the insights of industrial and academic researchers to congressional deliberations and to build support for federal agencies that fund nanotech research.
But analysts and critics—and some science fiction books and films—have raised questions about environmental problems, social impacts and other potential consequences of the new technology.
In her remarks to the caucus, Malcom said proponents of nanotechnology need to engage the public, listen to any concerns, and address them forthrightly.
In the 1990s, while she was a member of President Bill Clinton's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, the United States had arrived at a similar juncture regarding research on the human genome. Backed by the U.S. Department of Energy, AAAS developed video materials and published "Your Genes, Your Choices," a 1999 volume that combined science and personal vignettes in clear, accessible language to convey the meaning and importance of the research.
Outreach events were planned at a variety of venues, including senior citizens residences, libraries and churches, Malcom told the caucus. "But the book and video traveled far beyond our anticipated destinations—every educational level from middle school through college, informal venues, and around the world. Requests were received to translate the materials into many other languages, including Icelandic.
"It seems that by bringing people into the story we struck a chord," she added. "They were willing to work a little harder to understand the underlying scientific concepts and to consider that this science could affect their own lives."
Other speakers at the 31 March event were: Julia Moore, deputy director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center; Margaret Glass, Net Communications Coordinator for the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network at the Association of Science-Technology Centers; and Ruth McDonald, an Einstein Fellow at the National Science Foundation.
17 April 2008