The word idea is written in dressing room type lights

From idea to application

Will nanotechnologies take the world by storm? The road from idea to application is long and rocky

Science and technology offer a huge range of possibilities for feeding, clothing, mending, defending or just amusing ourselves. Only some ever become part of our lives, however. This is partly because time and money are always limited. If you spend all your cash on heart transplants, for instance, then cholesterol testing to prevent heart disease may lose out.

But there are a host of other things that influence technological futures, such as politics, economics and social, environmental or technological issues.

Economics

In the end, someone has to pay for all this stuff. By and large, it’s left to the commercial sector to develop products, so what actually gets made depends on what can be sold.

All this makes innovation – bringing a genuinely new product to market – a different type of risky business. Many products fail the test of consumer demand. At one time, Digital Audio Tape (DAT) promised a listening revolution, but it never got picked up in a big way. MP3s and iPods, however, caught the public imagination. By contrast, particular demands can shape the technology on offer. Personal computers have astonishingly good graphics because that’s what gamers want, even though most email and word-processor users may never see them in action.

Because of the way health products are used, the situation here is slightly different. Consumer demand has less of a role (although that may change), and there is a growing trend to assess the cost-effectiveness of new treatments. Bodies such as the National Institute for Clinical Excellence carry out detailed studies to find out which treatments should be recommended. But economic realities still dictate what happens.

Financial opportunities can also create incentives for companies to develop medical products of dubious value, to be marketed at the general population.

Politics

Politicians in democratic countries promise to do things on our behalf, such as manage the economy, improve public health and maintain effective defence. They pay attention to safety issues, and must heed public opinion – not least because they want to get re-elected. When it comes to technology, the economy tends to come first. Science is increasingly supported because it’s a good investment, rather than because new knowledge is valued in itself.

We are now supposed to be living in a ‘knowledge economy’ – we can’t compete with the low wages of, say, the Far East, so we need to concentrate on high-tech industries and jobs requiring special skills, education and a strong research capability.

Governments try to imagine future technological possibilities to help guide spending choices. The UK Government, like others, has a strong commitment to biotechnology and genetics. In 2012, the government also named ‘Eight Great Technologies’ in which it believes the UK can be a world leader: ‘Advanced Materials’ was one of the chosen fields. This encompasses nanotechnology and means that nano research will receive additional funding. It’s hoped that this will help nanotechnology reach its full potential.

Beliefs also have an important role. It’s easier to do research on stem cells derived from human embryos in the UK than in the USA, despite Barack Obama’s move to bolster human embryonic stem cell research.

Social influences

Consumers make or break a new product. But social influence can go further, from creating fashions that increase demand to active opposition to certain products. Mobile phones have been massively popular; the Segway hasn’t caught on. Sometimes it’s simply successful marketing that makes all the difference.

Some technologies attract controversy, which brings them to a shuddering halt – GM food in the UK, for example.

Public attitudes to nanoscience seem fairly positive at the moment, but this is probably a poor predictor of future responses. Few people have heard much about nanotechnology, so this positive outlook may derive from a general feeling that science and technology do more good than harm.

But the recent history of GM shows how public opinion can be swayed and can distinguish between different uses of the same technology. Genetic alteration for medical benefit seems to be more widely accepted than altering the genes of crop plants.

Technology

Another problem for the would-be entrepreneur is knowing when to invest in a particular technology. There’s a big gap between the visions of nano-manufacture and what is now possible in the lab. Even if something works in the lab, it may take much more work to scale it up for wider use. The whole process of technological development can take decades, and it’s often evolutionary rather than revolutionary. There have been bold predictions about gene therapy, but hardly any patients have seen the benefit yet – mostly because it’s proven so technologically demanding.

Environment

In the past, environmental impacts were rarely considered. Environmental harms are easy to pass on to someone else: air and water often shift pollutants far away from their source. In addition, they’re often ‘invisible’ – until fish start dying or winter disappears.

Environmental impact assessment is now routine for big projects like dams, factories and airports. For products, new methods can assess costs over the whole life cycle, not just manufacture – so the cost of a nuclear power station will eventually include paying to dismantle it and store the waste. But whether all relevant costs (and non-financial social impacts) get factored in is open to debate. Even simple things, like a styrofoam cup in Starbucks, can be analysed for environmental costs and benefits.

Lead image:

Mike Linksvayer/Flickr CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Nanoscience’ in June 2005 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Topic:
Biotechnology and engineering
Issue:
Nanoscience
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development