Science and Technology Innovation Program

Where Will the Science of Today Lead Us Tomorrow?

Point of View by Alex Parlini, project coordinator, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Apr 01, 2008

Sandwiched somewhere between generations X and Y, I am just old enough to remember when rotary dialing, UHF TV and 78 rpm vinyl were current technologies. This was a time before VCRs and microwave ovens, when "surfing the web" was a feat accomplished only by an arachnophilic superhero clad in a blue and red unitard.

The late 70s and 80s also were a heady period in the burgeoning field of genetic engineering. Manipulating the genes of plants—like corn, wheat, and rice—was hailed by some as science's solution to such grand challenges as world hunger. Unfortunately, the pace of innovation outstripped popular acceptance, and the rollout of those technologies was hamstrung by lack of public awareness, and concerns that inadequate attention had been paid to safety.

Fast forward a generation and nanotechnology promises to affect virtually all aspects of our daily lives, from consumer products and food to medicine and energy, and yet the majority of Americans still know little to nothing about it. As part of its mission to improve public awareness, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) must convey complex technological applications and implications to a public still puzzled about basic science. Enter: new media.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 75 percent of American adults now use the Internet. In a related We Media/Zogby poll, nearly half (48 percent) use the web as their primary news source, compared to 29 percent for TV, 11 percent for radio, and 10 percent for newspapers.

Online since late 2005, www.nanotechproject.org has tallied in excess of 3 million hits and averages more unique users in one week—more than 2,500—than the Project has hosted at 50 events in the last 3 years. While 9,000 publication copies have been placed in the hands of event-goers, online the download totals exceed 100,000. Some 52,000 people have accessed the Project's podcast series in the last year alone.

Other Project new-media efforts include user-updatable inventories, web syndication, social-bookmarking, blogs, mashups, webcasts, and entertaining and (gasp) educational video content. These alternative media vehicles are inexpensive, reach audiences across the broadest spectrum, and are trackable. As PEN's research and analysis zoom around the globe, when it comes to assessing impact and targeting messages, telemetry now (mostly) replaces telepathy.

The traditional model of measured discourse—putting good information and ideas directly in the hands of key decision-makers—has been a cornerstone of Wilson Center effectiveness for the past 40 years. But as the public's appetite for media consumption evolves, so too must the menu.

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