Thursday, July 24, 2003

Nanotechnology industry takes Greenpeace's bait

Greenpeace's just-released report on nanotechnology is vintage advocacy-group treatment of scientific research: Grab the available facts, then make them conform to your predetermined conclusion. That, after all, is what advocacy groups do. And most intelligent readers are able to keep that in mind when they come across any "study" that comes out of an organization that filters information through its preset worldview.

It's true for Greenpeace, the National Rifle Association or the Save the Bog Turtle Foundation.

Having worked in the news business most of my life, I've read through countless advocacy-group studies and have become fairly adept at separating the slogans and code phrases from the legitimate conclusions. Read enough of these research reports from groups with competing agendas, and a complete picture emerges not only of the facts that govern the issue, but more importantly how the actors involved process information and reach their conclusions.

A report like this one from Greenpeace, no matter its scientific merit, is an important read for everyone concerned about nanotechnology's future because it's a window into how the organization filters its information. Understanding – not necessarily agreeing, but understanding – can go a long way toward developing strategies to avoid ugly public confrontations like the battles over genetically modified foods. Greenpeace is a potentially powerful worldwide thought leader that can have a huge influence over public opinion, and the nanotech industry ignores or belittles it at its own peril.

That's why I was quite surprised at the reaction of NanoBusiness Alliance Executive Director Mark Modzelewski to this report. He attacked it as “industrial terrorism," telling Small Times correspondent Douglas Brown, "It’s a great way to raise new funds and pretend they care about something. The reason these groups care about nanotechnology is because they view it as the next industrial revolution. And, to them, slowing it down, creating fear and upsetting people is their means of creating a choke point on the development of industry and technology. They saw how it worked on genetically modified foods, and so this is a great way for them to do the exact same thing.”

Not a very astute way of representing nanotech as a responsible industry that takes public opinion into account. Modzelewski's comments, in fact, conform perfectly to Greenpeace's hard-wired view of industry – no matter what industry – as inherently irresponsible and self-interested, in need of watchdogs to keep them in check.

In fact, the report states right near the front that nanotech business alliances worldwide have been formed for the sole purpose of translating research into products and to build enough momentum behind the industry that any attempts to put the brakes on it as a result of public debate or input would be irrelevant. Enter Modzelewski, right on cue, seeming to confirm that the nanotech industry is dead set against any kind of slowdown or pause to think about the long-range impact of what it's doing.

That may not have been his intent, but it will be the way Greenpeace interprets the industry's initial reaction to environmental concerns and could set the tone for the debate to come.

In the next post, I'll analyze the Greenpeace report, itself. For now, though, I'll give you a hint: Take out the code words and phrases that are tailored to Greenpeace's audience, and you'll find some sound advice in there for the nanotech industry. As I've written previously, public perception is of paramount concern to anybody who cares about the future of nanotechnology.


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