It's obvious that business and government have a bad case of DNA PTSD, or genetic shell shock, which is why they certainly won't get fooled again when it comes to nanotechnology. I've heard the mantra many times during the past few years: "No More GMO." But the chanters wear pinstripes and not patchouli oil.
Public outcry (especially in Europe) against genetically modified organisms was the result of a determined effort between science, business and government to completely misread the public. It took some serious brainpower, collusion and planning to so totally miss the point on what gets the masses all fired up, and the important role public perception plays in the introduction of any new technology. The biggest mistake was the arrogant assumption that the public will accept as inherently good anything that helps big biotech companies succeed and farmers increase their yields. What was missing from the equation, of course, was consideration of how the public "feels" about genetic manipulation.
The right has a problem with "playing God," while the left doesn't want the corporate world messing with Mother Nature. The result is that it could take a generation or two to undo the damage done to public acceptance of scientific progress.
If you're curious about how and why this happened, PBS is running an excellent series on the history of DNA, and last night I caught some of the episode that deals with genetically modified organisms. The PBS site's "gallery of genetic modifications" is especially well done, stating the issues concisely and with flair.
It goes into the Flavr Savr tomato, created by the biotechnology company Calgene, and accompanying "rumors and horror stories [that] mention square tomatoes or tomatoes that glow in the dark."
By the time the Human Genome Project came along in the late '90s, the lesson had been learned. That's when the phrase "societal and ethical implications" became part of the government lexicon.
I recently had a talk with Kevin Ausman, executive director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University, who explained some of this historical context to me.
The study of societal and ethical implications, he said, is now an embedded part of most government nanotechnology programs, and it's a direct descendent of the Human Genome Project, where science, government and business had amazingly learned from their mistakes.
"The scientists involved in the Human Genome Project weren't really aware, until lots of surveys and things were done by the social scientists, that privacy issues were going to be the public hot-button issue," Ausman said. "In hindsight it makes a lot of sense."
And it paid off in broader public acceptance and trust. "You do a comparison of the Human Genome Project to genetically modified organisms, and it's just incredible the difference in public perception, and I believe pretty strongly that's directly attributable to the money and the good-faith effort that went into studies about societal and ethical implications," he said.
One more thing about DNA on PBS that I think could echo into nanotech's future. The documentary describes the "golden rice" debacle in which Monsanto essentially made overblown claims that it has found the solution to malnourishment. Long story short: "According to a 1999 report in the Financial Times, African countries in particular are 'wary of increasing dependence on developed countries and multinational corporations as a result of genetically modified crops.'"
A number of efforts are about to get under way that involve selling the idea of nanotechnology to developing nations, including those in Africa, as a means of solving local problems. Nanotechnology proponents are telling them that nano is no GMO. There doesn't need to be a Great White Monsanto to dole out its product. Developing nations can grow their own nanotech industry and tailor it to their own needs. It's true, but nanotech proponents will first need to penetrate more than a few layers of mistrust.
Watch for some of these efforts to make the news this year.