What the public think about nanomedicine

A major new initiative on the use of nanotechnology in medicine and healthcare has recently been launched by the UK government’s research councils; around £30 million (US$60 million) is expected to be available for large scale “Grand Challenge” style projects. The closing date for the first call has just gone by, so we will see in a few months how the research community has responded to this opportunity. What’s worth commenting on now, though, is the extent to which public engagement has been integrated into the process by which the call has been defined.

As the number of potential applications of nanotechnology to healthcare is very large, and the funds available relatively limited, there was a need to focus the call on just one or two areas; in the end the call is for applications of nanotechnology in healthcare diagnostics and the targeted delivery of therapeutic agents. As part of the program of consultations with researchers, clinicians and industry people that informed the decision to focus the call in this way, a formal public engagement exercise was commissioned to get an understanding of the hopes and fears the public have about the potential use of nanotechnology in medicine and healthcare. The full report on this public dialogue has just been published by EPSRC, and this is well worth reading.

I’ll be writing in more detail later both about the specific findings of the dialogue, and on the way the results of this public dialogue was incorporated in the decision-making process. Here, I’ll just draw out three points from the report:

  • As has been found by other public engagement exercises, there is a great deal of public enthusiasm for the potential uses of nanotechnology in healthcare, and a sense that this is an application that needs to be prioritised over some others.
  • People value potential technologies that empower them to have more control over their own health and their own lives, while potential technologies that reduce their sense of control are viewed with more caution.
  • People have concerns about who benefits from new technologies – while people generally see nothing intrinsically wrong with business driving nanotechnology, there’s a concern that public investment in science results in the appropriate public value.
  • 8 thoughts on “What the public think about nanomedicine”

    1. I’ll be writing in more detail later both about the specific findings of the dialogue, and on the way the results of this public dialogue was incorporated in the decision-making process.

      I look forward to reading your thoughts on the process, Richard. Do you think that the Times Higher Education Supplement’s recent short article accurately captured the level of public input into the decision making process? Rob Doubleday and I have recently been involved in an entertaining e-mail “spat” for Science and Public Affairs entitled “Should the direction of research be democratised?” which touches on some of the issues in your post and will be published in the issue of the magazine published next month. As I understand it, Rob was involved with the nanotechnology in healthcare public engagement exercise?

      Best wishes,


    2. The Higher’s headline “Nanotech research funding halted by a thumbs-down from the public” is quite the opposite of the truth – the study revealed very strong public support for nanotechnology research in the areas of healthcare and medicine. The point of the study was to help us make decisions about priority areas for this particular call for proposals, not to kill off support for an area for ever. As a journalist from another publication commented to me, the article has been “hammered into shape to suit the headline”. It’s not Zoe Corbyn’s finest hour.

      But there is an interesting story about the way the information from public engagement was used to help the decision making process. The dialogue did provide useful, non-obvious information about likely public reactions to the various ways in which nanotechnology might be used in healthcare, and this was very useful in the prioritisation of topics for the nanotechnology for healthcare call, together with the other inputs from consultations with the research community, clinicians and people from industry.

    3. Philip, I forgot to answer your other question – yes, Rob Doubleday was involved in the nanotechnology in healthcare dialogue. I look forward to seeing your exchange with him!

    4. I guess the limits to nanotechnology in medicine will depend on the maturity of the other suites in treatment. Specifically, I’m referring to a “nanocontainer” being used to deliver a poison, fluorescent or radioactive payload to a cancer tumour. If the tumour can’t be diagnosed quickly enough, it will grow to big or spread too fast for low-mass nanotech treatments to destroy it. When I read R.Freitas’s Nanomedicine I get the impression, through no fault of the author, that nanotech will be able to do everything rather than realizing a small part of longevity gains processes.
      A while back I participated in a Canadian agriculture public consultation and found the participants to be very knowledgeable; enlightened me that farmers weren’t small-town folk and were in fact entrepreneurs, inventors, and environmentalists. I think such consultations are just as important for their public education of partipicants as is the importance of their output. And thankfully the big oil lobby doesn’t see fit to sabotage most areas of science, Exxon is even researching higher diamondoids.

    5. Dear Richard, I do not appreciate this slur against one of my reporters. The article was not “hammered into shape to suit the headline” as you suggest. As is the case with all headlines at Times Higher Education this one was written by the sub-editors after the reporter had filed the copy. It was then approved by both the news editor and myself before publication.
      I understand that the angle of the story is not what you or the EPSRC would yourselves have chosen (and a letter from the EPSRC expressing its displeasure with some of the wording has duly been published) but it is not the business of Times Higher Education to present stories as the research councils would necessarily like them to be written.
      If you feel there are any factual inaccuracies within the story then please feel free to submit a correction to me; but I am satisfied that the article makes abundantly clear that the decision is restricted to a particular research programme and our readers would realise this.

      Ann Mroz, Editor, Times Higher Education

    6. Thanks for your reply, Ann. Let me bring your attention to the headline again – “““Nanotech research funding halted by a thumbs-down from the public” – could you explain how this is an appropriate headline for a story about a consultation that revealed considerable public support for nanotechnology in medicine, and which resulted in no change in the amount of research funding allocated to the nanomedicine call?

    7. I’ve just noticed that the link to the Higher piece in Philip’s comment is broken. Here is the story – I’ll leave it to any interested readers to decide whether my comments about it constitute a “slur”.

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