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Using the Internet to Debate Whether the Benefits of Nanotechnoplogy Outweigh the Costs

Governments, academics and commercial bodies are all waiting to see if developments in nanotechnology will cause the same uproar as that generated by the biotech industry.

A University of Leicester academic, Professor Rachel Gibson, has been working on a study of the rise and expansion of debate on the nanotechnology issue online, and she will present her findings to the annual meeting of the International Communication Association in May 2007.

Nanotechnology – the science of ‘small’ things – is a rapidly growing area of scientific research and development, uniting experts from fields including physics, materials science, mechanical and electrical engineering, genetics, cell biology to name a few.

It involves the manipulation and manufacture of materials and devices on the scale of nanometers (billionths of a meter). Because at such scales, the ordinary rules of physics and chemistry no longer apply, the capacity to produce new and potentially more effective materials that can be used in products for the home, communications, medicine, transportation, agriculture, and for industry in general are seen as immense.

Questions have been raised, however, by environmental groups and ethicists about the extent to which nanotechnology’s potential benefits outweigh its costs. This research will examine the efforts by the scientific community to engage with these social concerns and assess the extent to which any lessons appear to have been learned from the ‘GM’ debacle.

Along with Australian colleagues from the Australian National University, Professor Gibson has helped to develop a new way of studying the structure, evolution and implications of political and social organisations’ hyperlinking activities.

The Virtual Observatory for the Study of Online Networks (VOSON).
and its associated software provide social scientists with the means to study the success in mobilising opposition of groups such as the environmental movement in Europe which was successful in halting the development of the GM industry.

Watching the evolution of the debate online offers a new way of studying this question, particularly as many of the groups active on the issue are enthusiastic users of the Web.

Professor Gibson commented: “This project demonstrates the growing interest among social scientists in applying online technologies, and particularly cyber-mapping tools, to address important social science questions.

“The research allows us to examine the development and expansion of issue networks in a wholly new three dimensional space that means we can track the formation of alliances between groups over time and across countries.

“We are really just beginning to tap into the power of these e-research tools in new media studies and I fully expect the next few years to see a widening of their use across the social sciences.”

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