Nanotechnologies involve particles of an unimaginably small size. The thickness of a human hair is 80,000 nanometers, and a pin head is generally agreed to be 1 million nanometres wide. The ability to work at this scale, at the level of individual molecules, is a triumph of human ingenuity.

I am well aware that promoting public debate about nanotechnology is an uncertain business. My first gentle attempt to draw the subject to wider attention resulted in ‘Prince fears grey goo nightmare' headlines. So, for the record, I have never used that expression and I do not believe that self-replicating robots, smaller than viruses, will one day multiply uncontrollably and devour our planet. Such beliefs should be left where they belong, in the realms of science fiction. The important thing is to get on with the sensible debate that should accompany the introduction of such technologies which work at the level of the basic building blocks of life itself.

Nanotechnologies involve particles of an unimaginably small size. The thickness of a human hair is 80,000 nanometers, and a pin head is generally agreed to be 1 million nanometres wide. The ability to work at this scale, at the level of individual molecules, is a triumph of human ingenuity. It is also a subject of huge scientific interest and commercial potential simply because matter behaves in fundamentally different ways at the nano-scale. These new properties will enable new applications, many of which will undoubtedly have perceived benefits to our society. If they don't, they won't be commercialized. But how are we going to ensure that proper attention is given to the risks that may also ensue? Discovering the secrets of the Universe is one thing; ensuring that those secrets are used wisely and appropriately is quite another.

So I am delighted that the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering are conducting a joint study on nanotechnology. This will help to separate the scientific facts from the science fiction, and the hope from the hype, providing the starting point for a much wider debate. Their report will be published in the next few weeks, but the evidence they have taken from a wide range of interested parties is already available on the Internet (www.nanotec.org.uk/evidence). The evidence covers a wide spectrum of opinion, much of it naturally concerned to ensure that the potential benefits from nanotechnology are not understated in the report.

I was particularly struck by the evidence provided by a recently-retired Professor of Engineering at Cambridge University, Professor John Carroll. He hopes that the investigation will ‘consider seriously those features that concern non-specialists and not just dismiss those concerns as ill-informed or Luddite'. Referring to the thalidomide disaster, he says it ‘would be surprising if nanotechnology did not offer similar upsets unless appropriate care and humility is observed.' He ends by pointing out that ‘it may not be easy to steer between a Luddite reaction and a capitulation to the brave new technological world, especially when money, jobs and business are at risk.' Those are my sentiments too, and I wish the Royal Society and Academy every success in steering that difficult course.

It is important, though, to ask, at this early stage, how we will ensure that risk assessment keeps pace with commercial development. This is clearly a very fast-moving area of science, involving many disciplines, yet if we look at the EU's research programme for nanotechnology, only an estimated 5 per cent of total funding is being spent on examining the environmental, social and ethical dimensions of these technologies. That certainly doesn't inspire confidence.

There are also important questions relating to the control and ownership of these technologies. Some of the work may have fundamental benefits to society, such as enabling the construction of much cheaper fuel-cells, or new ways of combatting ill-health, yet the techniques operate at the same scale as the ‘self-assembly' of natural processes. Is there a danger of awarding patents on Nature?

My final point concerns the apportionment of benefits and risks. The benefits will largely accrue to those who invest successfully in these technologies and to those who can utilize them. But these new applications will inevitably displace existing technologies. Who will lose from that process, and will it widen the existing disparities between rich and poor nations? What exactly are the risks attached to each of the techniques under discussion, who will bear them, and who will be liable if and when real life fails to follow the rose-tinted script?

This debate is still at an early stage. The Royal Society's research shows that only 29 per cent of the population currently even recognizes the term ‘nanotechnology'; those who do are generally positive about its potential. I suspect that broader public acceptance will only be achieved and maintained if public attitudes and regulatory processes are encouraged to develop at the same rate as the technology itself, and if a precautionary approach is seen to be applied.

There will also, I believe, have to be significantly greater social awareness, humility and openness on the part of the proponents of emerging nanotechnologies than we have seen with other so-called “technological advances” of recent years. Those are the things which, above all, I hope the Royal Society and Academy's report will encourage.