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With transparency against suspicion

"Communication is a tricky business. You must do the best you can," said Dr. Hermann Stamm who is a great supporter of nanotechnology. The physicist has plans to show the current and, especially, future potential of this technology, which is celebrated by many but feared by others. He also speaks openly about potential risks and dangers.

Hermann Stamm is not the only respected nanoscientist who believes in openly communicating the pros and cons of nanotechnology. Another distinguished scientist, Prof. Wolfgang Heckl, physicist, nanoscientist and Director of the German Museum in Munich, is also a strong supporter of dialogue. “It is not enough to do wonderful science. It is necessary to talk with people about what we are doing,” said Heckl.

“We must not be overbearing”

"Scientists must not be overbearing", said Prof. Wolfgang Heckl (Photo: German Museum)
It appears that nanotechnologists have learned from the debacles of technologies that had a promising start but then experienced great opposition from the public. Two well-known examples are the mistrust concerning stem cell research, and the resistance to green genetic engineering. Scientists and industrial researchers have often been regarded as the scapegoats for the lack of public acceptance. Did they forget to communicate an objective picture of the chances and risks of these new technologies? In addition, the public was put off because the one or other luminary denied the public the choice of careful judgement, saying that only well-informed scientists can decide such matters. Wolfgang Heckl has a completely different opinion: We scientists must not be overbearing. We should always take public opinion into consideration.
Hermann Stamm, who is originally from the city of Villingen-Schwenningen, now works at the Institute of Health and Consumer Protection at the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. At the 3rd Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Barcelona, Stamm talked about the opportunities and potential risks of nanotechnology. The audience consisted of colleagues, but also of many laypeople. It is the aim of ESOF to communicate science and the conference is meant as a platform for leading scientists, young researchers, politicians, industry representatives and journalists to discuss important directions in research and exchange information. At the AAAS, which was held last winter in the USA, Hermann Stamm also informed his audience of the potentials and uncertainties of nanotechnology.

What actually is nanotechnology?

This question is not always easy to answer. “Many people do not have the faintest idea about nanotechnology,” said Hermann Stamm who likes to give an explanation of the term nanotechnology when starting a presentation on the topic. But this is not easy either. Nanotechnology is not a homogeneous field of research, but has something to do with physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and material sciences.
Nanotechnology
One nanometre corresponds to one millionth of a millimetre. The Greek word “nano” means simply “dwarf”. Nanotechnology deals with structures that are in general smaller than 100 nanometres in size. The “dwarfs” are of great interest because their smallness gives them completely new physical and chemical properties. This in turn enables the development of new products with unique capacities and extraordinary functions. Nanomaterials play an important role in computer technology, but also in the development of new fuel cells, in medicine, environmental protection, safety technology, cosmetics and textile industries. Nanostructures have always been present in nature. Fat droplets in milk or silicon oxide spheres that make opals shine, are examples of natural nanoparticles. New technologies, such as the scanning tunnelling microscope, enable scientists and engineers to examine atomic and molecular nanostructures in great detail and generate effects that they had known for a long time but were unable to use technically.
Arabidopsis cells labelled with fluorescent nanoparticles (Photo: IMTEK)
Hermann Stamm is convinced that nanotechnology will support the development of cleaner energy sources, reduce environmental pollution and have a positive effect on agricultural applications. However, he is sure that nanotechnology will have the greatest benefit in the healthcare sector. For example, nanosize drugs can move around in the body and target parts of the organism that cannot otherwise be reached. “I am sure that the treatment of cancer will make great progress through the use of nanotechnology,” said Hermann Stamm. The scientists hope that they will eventually be able to use nanoparticles to transport anti-cancer drugs into tumour tissue. This can be achieved through specific molecules on the surface of certain cancer cells to which drug-loaded nanoparticles will attach themselves. These are the capacities through which nanoparticles can be of great use. On the other hand, it has also to be kept in mind that exactly this capacity might put an organisms’ defence at risk. Substances that are harmless in a larger size, might be toxic when produced in nano form. “It is necessary to close these knowledge gaps and find out exactly what happens,” said Hermann Stamm, appealing to his audience in Barcelona.

The scientists want more risk research

It is usually the scientists who discuss about potential dangers in public. Last year, Nature Nanotechnology (2007, vol. 2, p. 732-34, “Scientists worry about some risks more than the public”) published a paper on how people assessed the risk of nanotechnology for human health and environment. The survey showed that renowned nanoscientists and engineers assessed the risks of nanotechnology as far greater than laypeople. The major reason for their concern is that there are too little useful data available that would enable a reasonable and reliable assessment of the effect of nanoparticles on humans and the environment. Hermann Stamm and many of his colleagues agree: nanotechnology needs more risk research.

Researchers from the Scottish city of Edinburgh had similar thoughts and examined how carbon nanotubes, which are already in broad use, affected the health of mice. The results published by Ken Donaldson and his team a few weeks ago in Nature Nanotechnology (2008, Vol. 3, p423-28) caused a whirl of excitement among nanotechnologists: Previously it was assumed that sufficiently long carbon nanotubes were as harmless as graphite and their application did not have more risks than the sharpening of a pencil. However, when the Scottish researchers introduced carbon nanotubes into the abdominal cavity of mice, the animals showed inflammatory reactions and asbestos-like pathogenicity. For Hermann Stamm this finding clearly calls for further, in-depth research and great caution before introducing such tubes into the market. “We still know too little about the toxicity of synthetic nanomaterials,” said Stamm honestly.

Openness when talking with the media – even with the most critical journalists

“NanoCare” is the name of a German project that focuses on the systematic investigation of nanomaterials and develops standardised tests for such investigations. NanoCare receives funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Shortly, another project, “NanoNature”, will start and not only focus on the potential application of nanotechnology in environmental technology, but also examine the effects of synthetic nanoparticles and nanomaterials on the environment.
A man who is not afraid of talking openly: The head of NanoCare, Prof. Harald Krug. (Photo: private)
The head of NanoCare, Prof. Harald Krug, the toxicologist, who used to work at the Karlsruhe Research Centre and now holds a post at the Swiss Material Testing and Research Institute in St. Gallen, Switzerland, is another person who does not mince his words. He speaks as frankly about the risks of nanotechnology with representatives of the Greenpeace magazine as he does with the science editor of the SWR2 TV and radio station. Krug openly criticises the fact that standards had, for a long time, not been available for toxicological examinations and rails against the inadequate number of toxicologists that are able to examine the potential risks. “Communication is an important aspect of the NanoCare concept,” explains Krug. “We’ve learned from the past and try our best to do better than before.” But he also admits that it is difficult to reach the wider public.

Events for everybody: The NanoCare dialogue on the “safe production of nanomaterials” started in April at Hamburg University. At the end of September (Saturday, 27. September) NanoCare will be in Munich at the German Museum and in Dresden at the end of November (Saturday, 29.11.).

The “transparent laboratory” will be open to the public on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Young scientists will be available to answer questions on nanotechnology and explain why they do their research. On behalf of the BMBF, the “Nanotruck” will travel through Germany and inform as many people as possible about the scientific basics and application fields of nanotechnology. The earlier the public is informed about the pros and cons of nanotechnology in experiments, talks and discussion rounds, the greater the potential for a broad acceptance of this technology.

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/with-transparency-against-suspicion