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16 November 2009 NANO Magazine - Issue 14

‘Nano’ versus nano

The fight for public understanding of nanotechnology. From NANO Magazine Issue 14: Nanomaterials for a competitive edge.

The fight for public understanding of nanotechnology
The fight for public understanding of nanotechnology.
Image Credit: Different Voice.

Like so many areas of research, nanotechnology can be discussed quite easily with people who understand it, but can effortlessly mutate into a perfect nightmare when explaining it to people who do not. At some time or another, many of us will have been placed in a position where it was necessary to explain our professions and areas of research to people who may not understand them. On many occasions, such people seem keen yet are completely dumbfounded by colourful explanations. There is a sense of dismay as they and others ‘misinterpret’ descriptions, ask seemingly unrelated questions, and generally find endeavours at explanation incomprehensible and bewildering. In the main, people are quite genuinely either oblivious to nanotechnology, or have a decidedly skewed notion of ‘what it does’. This chasm within public understanding can be quite easily filled by other means, and the real difficulty is when that chasm becomes filled by marketing communications, rather than fact.

Ideas expressed through marketing communications by companies wishing to build brands and sell products, is a scenario that may initiate a new public consciousness concerning nanotechnology. Using the spectrum of marketing tools that are deployed throughout broadcast, print, ambient and digital media, ideas in this instance would not be formed on the basis of what nanotechnology is, but rather on a fusion of ideas and associations constructed around 'brand nano', that is to say the goods and services that carry the word ‘nano’ in their brand names.

Selling the nano brand

For example, the iPod Nano by Apple is suggested to consumers as being cool and contemporary, with such positive aspects likely to become one with the word ‘nano’ as well. Yet, the opposite can also be true, and this is why marketing communications represent a risk to nanotechnology as a whole, for now at least. If the iPod Nano was to become yesterday’s technology – as inevitably most technologies do – the word ‘nano’ would most likely become infused with the negative associations that would be intertwined with the demise of its big brand namesake. As the public lacks any kind of meaningful knowledge of nanotechnology, that scenario may achieve little more for the science apart from being misleading and confusing.

It would seem obvious that to leave marketing practitioners with the task of building positive equity for nanotechnology is an eminently risky strategy. When attempting to analyse the wider impact of this, many pertinent examples can be taken from argument surrounding that which is arguably brand nano’s current champion, the Tata Nano car.

Nano? No! No!

The Tata Nano is so named by virtue of its small stature in tandem with its comparatively small price. On the surface, it would seem highly positive for any vehicle to boast the attributes of being lightweight and affordable. However, there are negative aspects surrounding the Tata Nano as well.

In West Bengal - an Indian state frequently marred by political in-fighting – Tata proposed to establish its production base for the Nano at Singur. This intention was met with robust disapproval from the Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, and from throngs of farmers claiming foul play by Tata in its bid to secure land in West Bengal’s farming belt. With the situation worsening by the day, Banerjee went on a hunger strike, while protesters burnt effigies of the Tata Nano and held banners with such slogans as ‘Nano? No! No!’ For many though, the defining moment of the whole sorry episode in Singur was not even the political posturing or social unrest, but the death of an eighteen year-old Save Farmland Committee campaigner Tapasi Malik who had been viciously raped and burnt to death, reportedly at the hands of party members belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Since Singur, things have not seemed so much brighter for 'brand nano' in the public domain. Tata has since proposed shifting its production base to a new site at Sanand in the Tata family heartland of Gujarat. Though this stemmed the bulk of criticism from farmers and politicians in West Bengal, the Tata Nano quickly became the focus of fresh criticism from environmental activists and commentators who claimed that the affordability of the Nano would lead to an upsurge in the volume of vehicles on roads around the world, which in turn would be damaging to the environment. Moreover, Silver Nano, the brand name of a Samsung produced antibacterial technology which uses silver nanoparticles in various white goods and home appliances, has continued to receive criticism from campaigners ranging from environmental organisations to academics and journalists who have drawn attention to the potentially toxic effects of the product.

Such negativity is never good for any brand, and the old theory which held that any publicity is good publicity has long since been exposed as absurd. What makes the Tata Nano example worthy of particular attention – potentially at least – is the collateral damage which could be suffered by nanotechnology as a result of the wave of negative publicity that ‘brand nano’ received.

Once the divisions between nanotechnology and ‘brand nano’ become blurred, the negative press of one can easily spread to the other. As unreasonable as this may seem, it nevertheless means that public opinion of nanotechnology – be it consciously or subliminally – is liable to be hugely influenced by events like the violence in Singur and the death of Tapasi Malik.

Recluse scientists need not apply

Relying on public forgetfulness, indifference, or substandard media coverage as a means of dealing with this problem is lazy, and very likely to result in larger difficulties concerning long-term misunderstanding of nanotechnology. It is important therefore for scientists and others involved in the field of nanotechnology to take the lead in informing the public on what nanotechnology is all about, so that brand nano does not become the basis for understanding. A multitude of methods are available to achieve this, be they blogging, podcasting, video posting, twittering, or otherwise. There remains a stereotype of the scientist as a social recluse and a poor communicator, in spite of the attempts that have been made to shake this image off. Nevertheless, it is time that public understanding of nanotechnology was formed through the explanations of those who understand it, and not by those that are paid to use erroneous associations with it to sell products.

John Andrew Carruthers is a PhD researcher from the University of the West of Scotland.

Source: NANO Magazine - Issue 14 /...

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