Real Voices interview: Doug Parr and Mark Welland

Meet Doug and Mark, two people for whom nanotechnology is a big part of their working lives

These interviews were conducted in 2005, around the time when nanotechnology hit the headlines. The landscape of nano has since changed and there have been significant advances in the field. These interviews give an indication of both positive and sceptical attitudes to the emerging field at the time.

Who are you and what do you do?

Dr Doug Parr (DP): I’m Dr Doug Parr, the Chief Scientific Advisor of Greenpeace, an independent non-profit global campaigning organisation.

Professor Mark Welland (MW): I’m Mark Welland, a Professor of Nanotechnology. I’m Director of the Interdisciplinary Research Centre for Nanotechnology and the Nanoscience Centre at the University of Cambridge.

How will nanotechnologies change our lives over the next 20 years?

DP: It’s very difficult to say. It’s hard to see 20 years ahead. We do need to stay a bit sceptical about how likely technologies are to change our lives, because a lot of predictions are wrong. 

MW: By definition, the amount of funding going into nanotechnologies (in the USA, the money invested in nanotechnologies is more than the budget for NASA) means that there will be significant differences in our lives. We’ll see huge impacts in lots of areas.

Is opposition to nanotechnologies just a fear of change?

DP: There isn’t big public opposition to nanotechnologies. Greenpeace isn’t opposed to them, either: I hope some good things will come out of them. But we do have some scepticism about how they will be shaped.

MW: No, it’s a fear of unknown consequences… Physical properties set at the atomic- and molecular-length scales can lead to other unplanned properties and consequences.

Will nanotechnologies widen the gap between the world’s rich and poor?

DP: If the current model of technology development is followed, the divide will increase because investment in nanoscience will largely be made by, and for the benefit of, richer countries. At best, they will have no impact on the divide.

MW: There’s always that danger. But nanotechnologies are unique in that – unlike in other industries, which require levels of investment that are impossible for developing countries – you can make new materials and devices very cheaply with them. This could shrink the gap between rich and poor countries.

Should the public be involved in decisions about the future direction of nanotechnologies?

DP: Yes, we should be involved. This is everyone’s future we’re talking about. The blockage is that decision makers don’t involve the public in debates. Unlike most areas of policy making or public services, in science there are no intermediate mechanisms to ensure the decision makers are accountable to the public about how or what research is funded. 

MW: As in all technologies, yes. The question is, how do you go about it? We’re running a citizens’ jury with the Guardian and Greenpeace, which will bring out issues in a public way. But it’s still limited: it may involve around 20 people.

Are nanotechnologies being overhyped?

DP: Time will tell. Maybe, maybe not.

MW: Absolutely. No question.

Will nanotechnologies affect the environment?

DP: They definitely will, but at present it’s hard to tell whether the effect will be good or bad. Solar cells would be a good effect.

MW: Technologies in general do. Nanoparticles could potentially have a toxic effect. We need to understand the pathways through which they move into the environment. At the moment, the quantities being made are tiny, but [their effects] could be greater in the future as people start to scale up.

Are there enough controls in place?

DP: Regulatory frameworks are clearly not suitable yet. A broader point is: are regulatory frameworks that determine science and technology delivering what we want for society? They’re generally not up to it, which is why we still have huge centralised electricity plants, rather than cheap, energy-efficient solar cells. 

MW: Controls can be put in place either because we know of negative outcomes or consequences, which we must stop, or because we are uncertain about the outcome of certain technologies. Once an uncertainty or negative certainty is recognised, we must do something.

Are there enough controls? I think we need a balance. If you control everything in the interests of safety, you end up restricting all development so it will never happen. We need to allow technology to develop and be useful.

What excites and scares you most about nanoscience?

DP: I’m excited about the possibility of clean energy. What scares me…is the fusion of nanotech and biotech if – and it is an ‘if’ – it uses biological tools to produce self-replicating objects. I’m talking cyborgs, rather than grey goo. But it’s ten years from being a serious prospect and might never happen.

MW: I’m excited by the fact that such small, beautiful structures have consequences on sizes 1000 million times bigger and offer such an enormous potential for new applications. I don’t think anything particularly scares me. I’m concerned we’re not doing enough research into some of the uncertainties.

About this resource

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

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