Sarah: As promised, Kristin and I attended the Australian Office of Nanotechnology (AON) public forum in Adelaide on the 8th of May. Host Belinda Barr (representing Primary Industries and Resources, SA and Australian Science Communicators) was not only scientifically literate, but a barrel of laughs to boot. She unashamedly illustrated the itty-bitty scale of what we were talking about by describing the size descrepancy between the tips (blond, diameter = 15-50,000 nanometres) and the roots of her hair (dark, diameter = 50-180,000 nanometres). Belinda also introduced us to the interactive voting gadgets provided by the AON to gauge audience responses to nanotechnology issues throughout the evening. We managed to ascertain that 80% of attendees thought that the benefits of nanotechnology outweighed the risks, and that 95% of us believed it was worth spending more money on nanotechnology research. 81% of respondants would buy a product that they knew had nanotechnology in it. Unfortunately, the technology then failed us and we had to resort to good old-fashioned hand raising to answer questions. This raised an interesting point in itself, which was that as soon as the anonymity was removed, most respondants were too shy to publically admit their opinions on issues around nanotechnology. Surely this is a problem! Not just with nanotechnology, but with science on the whole – members of the public don’t feel informed and confident enough to discuss new and emerging technologies. This issue later emerged as a uniting theme across all 3 speakers at the forum.
Joe Shapter (School of Chemistry, Physics and Earth Sciences, Flinders University)
– “Science drives change! The public as a whole needs to be informed and involved in science”.
Georgia Miller (Friends of the Earth, Australia)
– “There is almost no recognition that the public has the right to be involved in decision-making” with respect to nanotechnology and other new technologies.
– “We are here today because we don’t want nanotechnology to repeat the mistakes associated with past technologies”.
Once Asa Janting (National Measurement Institute) reassured us that “Yes, we can measure things we can’t see!”, the evening progressed, and some interesting discussions occurred between the audience and panel members. Topics covered included:
– what is nanotechnology?;
– what can nanotechnology offer us now and in the future?;
– the public should be actively involved in the development and use of nanotechnology.
We look forward to more AON events bringing nanotechnology to the public. Next time, I would be very interested to see a breakdown of the types of people attracted to attend – were they students, scientists, university graduates, teachers? This at least would give us an idea of what societal groups are already aware that nanotechnology exists, and who we need to target to improve public access into the future.