And on the tiny matter of nanotechnology...

11th May 2012 at 01:00
A Glasgow secondary held a high-profile debate on the ethics of a `new industrial revolution'. Douglas Blane reports

Blue chihuahuas, lotus leaves and underpants that never need washing are all part of a lively debate at Smithycroft Secondary in Glasgow. It sounds like fun and it is, but there is a serious side.

Working with the building blocks of matter, nanotechnology is touted as a "new industrial revolution" that will and transform the world. But there are concerns. So the purpose of the Nanochannels debates is to allow people to air these and question scientists at the cutting edge.

"This is a first for Smithycroft," says headteacher Jean Miller, as she opens the debate in the school hall. "It is also a first for the UK. There have been only six of these debates so far in the greater European area."

The debates are part of a process funded by the European Commission and aimed at building responsible views on nanotechnology, says European Schoolnet's Barbara Schwarzenbacher. "We want to get pupils and parents involved. We provide the structure but every event is different."

Glasgow is an ideal location, Kelvin Nanotechnology's Dr Brendan Casey, one of three experts on the pro side of the debate, tells the audience at Smithycroft. "We have customers from all over the world and Glasgow has an international reputation in research, through people such as Professor Lee Cronin."

Leader of a creative group of researchers at the University of Glasgow, and fresh from talking about liquid fuel from solar energy on Newsnight Scotland, Professor Cronin is lined up tonight in the group against nanoscience.

"I do a lot of nano research, but I'm happy to be speaking against nano," he says. "What I'm against is the hype around the word and the idea that it's all new. Take a look at the wonderful stained-glass windows in a church. They are made with nano-sized, ground-up clay they've been putting in glass for a thousand years. Another example is the gold eye-shadow the ancient Egyptians used. Nano is nothing new."

There are genuine concerns, though, around the issue. Some are expressed tonight by the audience and some by other panellists, such as ethicist Donald Bruce and Smithycroft depute head Matt Hodgman: "You don't want to limit researchers' imagination, but surely you need regulation for things like the waste nano-particles commercial companies might release into rivers?"

It's a good point, says Professor Cronin. "There are lots of nano-sized plastic particles in the environment already. But that's because of plastic bag manufacturers - nothing to do with nano research. These plastic particles can limit the uptake of iron and maybe cause deficiencies."

Regulation needs to focus on the different technologies without getting hung up on the nano label, agrees Donald Bruce. "It's like calling the Industrial Revolution `macro-technology'. Nano covers medicine, materials, food, information technology. We have to look at what needs regulating in each of these areas - and it's not the same."

Regulation is desirable, agrees Professor Cronin. "It could even stimulate research in very useful directions." It's the last point of agreement for some time, as a lively discussion develops that continues beyond the scheduled end of the evening.

"Even after you had listened to the arguments, it was very hard to decide," says Elizabeth Haynes. "I work in a biochemistry lab, so I have a foot in both camps."

The hardest part was organising the event, says Melanie Hayes (S5). "And making sure the speakers turned up on time. It was stressful, but it went well. The most interesting part was what Lee Cronin said about wee devices in your skin that will tell you if you're going to get a disease."

Managing to get such "high-profile people" was a nice surprise, says Nicola Balloch (S5). "We thought they might not come because it was only a school, and we might have to do it with just pupils and teachers. We were ready to bribe them with pizza and chocolate, but we didn't need to."

As senior pupils in Smithycroft's very active science club, the two girls took on the organisation of the event, says chemistry teacher Linda McCusker. "Nanochannels gave us some names and I found some more. Then the girls emailed or phoned people and asked if they would come.

"Our pupils already knew a fair bit about nano, because we do a debate in first-year about silver nano-particles. Lee Cronin was very good, but there are a lot of environmental issues, I believe. All our science teachers held up yellow cards at the end to show they were undecided."

It was a fascinating debate, says head of science Christine Hair. "I was pleased with the way the adults in the audience got involved in the discussion, and it wasnt just our pupils. It went very well. At Smithycroft we are always keen to try new ways of getting children interested in science."

A few nano statements

Nanoparticles are natural, says Elise Prentice (S1), demonstrating bookmarks decorated with iridescent colours, at one of the pupil stands that formed the backdrop to the Smithycroft debate. "We used nail varnish on black card to make these. It spreads out till it's just a few particles thick, like an oil film. The light gets in and gives you lovely coloured patterns ."

". Electronic skin will enable you to wear your computer to work ."

". Weaving electronics into the fabric of our physical world ."

". New chef shirts use self-cleaning based on nanoscience."!nanochannels.

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