Nanotechnology is once again in the spotlight. Within the past few months, we have had the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report Too Little Too Late?: Government Investment in Nanotechnology, which criticizes the low level of UK funding for nanotechnology research. We have had the government's reply and a subsequent debate in the House of Commons. And, most recently, we have had the extraordinary media fuss surrounding comments made by the Prince of Wales linking nanotechnology with the possibility of a thalidomide-like disaster. His previous pronouncement on this subject last year led to banner headlines about the impending doom threatened by self-replicating nanorobots transforming the planet into "grey goo". Hardly a week seems to go by without another scare story emerging or the announcement of a breakthrough that promises a new technology with large economic potential.

What are we to make of all this? How are we to separate fact from fiction, and hype from hope? The new report from the working group on nanotechnology set up by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, of which I am a member, provides a welcome dose of common sense. Commissioned last year by science minister Lord Sainsbury, the report is an independent study of the potential health, safety and environmental impact of nanotechnology, and an assessment of the social and ethical issues surrounding its development.

Entitled Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties, the report reviews the current state of the field in a way that is accessible to non-scientists and describes realistic future developments. It does not find evidence of significant health risks, but it recognizes that no evidence of risk is not equivalent to evidence of no risk. The report also finds that there are no new ethical issues arising from the introduction of nanotechnology, but that the broader issue of public acceptance of new technology is once again brought into focus.

Its recommendations will be regarded as being both cautious and pragmatic: there is no justification for a moratorium on nanotechnology research, as called for by some environmental groups, and there is no need to appoint a special regulatory body to oversee nanotechnology. But there are important issues that scientists and politicians should pay urgent heed to.

Monitoring the risks

One area of concern is the use of manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes in new composite materials, pharmaceuticals and cosmetic products. As their use increases, it is inevitable that such nanoparticles will be released into the environment. Yet there is very little available information on the health and environmental risks that they might pose. There are, of course, vast numbers of nanoparticles in the air that arise from fuel combustion, vehicle exhaust emissions and so on, but even here we do not know the full extent of the health risk. It is known that nanoparticles can reach places that larger particles cannot reach: inhaled nanoparticles are found in the bloodstream, and they have been found to cross through the olfactory nerve system (which senses smell) and to disperse throughout the brain. However, it is not known if this poses a health risk.

Nanotubes have some similarities with asbestos fibres, and so there is a possibility that asbestosis-like disease may result from their inhalation. Again, very little information is available. What is reassuring is that, by normal industrial standards, only small amounts of nanomaterials are currently produced - and since they are expensive to manufacture, physical containment is an economic necessity. Nevertheless, the working group has recommended that there should be a major injection of funds for research into the possible toxicity of nanoparticles and nanotubes by setting up a new interdisciplinary research centre.

The lack of detailed toxicology data places regulators in a difficult position. Where nanostructures are used in pharmaceutical applications, it is felt that the existing testing and validation procedures are sufficient to identify any significant risk. However, there are problems with the regulation of chemicals. In some circumstances, nanoparticles are deemed to have the same properties as bulk material of the same composition: this is evidently wrong since one of the primary motivations for using nanoparticles is their enhanced catalytic activity. The working group has recommended that such nanostructures should be classed as new chemicals for the purposes of regulation.

Public dialogue

The success of any new technology depends critically on public acceptance - the benefits must clearly outweigh the risks. The working group found that less than 30% of the population has heard of nanotechnology, and that far fewer individuals know what it is. The race to put nanotech products into the market place, coupled with this lack of public awareness, has provoked some pressure groups to label nanotech as "the next GM". Technically this comparison is nonsense: genetic modification is a single technology, whereas nanotechnology is a range of technologies, or, arguably, an enabling technology.

The intention to discredit nanotechnology is clearly evident. Public opinion is based on trust, and, in this respect, it depends on scientists reporting accurate and reliable data, free from interference or external pressure. Although the public attitude to science is one of declining interest, verging on indifference, scientists are still held in relatively high esteem, second only to medical doctors if opinion polls are to be believed, but this applies only to scientists not funded by industry. As soon as there is a commercial link, the level of public trust drops.

This raises a difficult issue for academic researchers. There is considerable government pressure to increase the extent of commercial participation in projects funded by the research councils: the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, for example, wants to achieve 50% industrial participation by 2007. The independence of academic researchers is therefore in danger of being compromised. This situation calls for a re-assessment of funding mechanisms, and the need to retain a strong independent research effort in our universities.

Public indifference to science may be a symptom of its lack of participation in the scientific process. New technology is invariably presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, and, in the case of GM technology, the latter option has been exercised. It would be irresponsible if this outcome was to be repeated with nanotechnology. There are lessons to be learned from the GM debacle, and they need to be taken on board by the scientific and political establishments.

Lessons for scientists and politicians

First, scientists must do a much better job in communicating their work to the public, and in being open and frank about the uncertainties. The much-hyped advantages of nanotechnology have led to inflated expectations, which will almost certainly lead to disappointment and disillusionment.

But while communication is necessary, alone it is not sufficient: the public must somehow become more involved in the decision-making process. It is unrealistic to appoint lay members to research-evaluation panels, but is it unreasonable to have more lay involvement at a strategic level? The question now facing the scientific community is how far upstream can this process go? This will undoubtedly be an issue that comes under increasing scrutiny in the months to come.

The question of democratic accountability also figures in this discussion. In parliamentary terms, science and technology issues have a very low priority. The nanotechnology debate in the House of Commons, for example, was poorly attended: only seven members of parliament contributed to the debate, including the government minister. Yet issues such as global warming, stem-cell research, therapeutic and reproductive cloning, GM and now nanotechnology are among the most important social issues facing politicians.

With the parliamentary summer recess fast approaching, the traditional cabinet re-shuffle is undoubtedly being contemplated at this moment. Is it not time that the importance of science and technology is recognized and afforded a cabinet-level appointment?