No evidence of harm = Evidence of no harm?

Roundtables: Audience discusses feedback for stakeholders (c) EUSJA
Roundtables: Audience discusses feedback for stakeholders (c) EUSJA

International Rollout of the Science Debate@ESOF 2014 Kopenhagen. Major stakeholders and the public debated nanotechnology. After 20 years, our society still lacks knowledge about benefits and harm. The feedback of the roundtables showed that more dialogue and formats are needed. A respective resolution will be presented to the European Commission.

Four major stakeholders presented their views about ”Expectations and Risks of Nanotechnology”: Dr. Markus Lackinger, nano researcher representing Deutsches Museum (German Museum) and Technical University Munich TUM; Dr. Steffi Friedrichs, Nanotechnology Industries Association, Brussels; Dr. Lone Mikkelsen, Danish Ecological Council, Kopenhagen; Claus Jorgensen, Danish Consumers Council, Kopenhagen. The meeting was attended by some 60 participants of the Euroscience Open Forum 2014 Kopenhagen. The event was moderated by Barbie Drillsma, EUSJA president emeritus.

Chair of the debate; Barbie Drillsma (c) EUSJA
Chair of the debate; Barbie Drillsma (c) EUSJA

Hanns-J. Neubert, former chairman of the German Science Writers Association TELI, had developed the format. In his introduction, he outlined that debates have been created to set the agenda on scientific issues and make recommendations to policy makers. They are run live, like the Kopenhagen debate and continued online.

Usually the public is consulted ”at the end of the pipe”, he explained, when decisions already have been made. Science debates convey the direct exchange between experts and the public and aim at ”start of the pipe” involvement. Only inclusion and collaboration from the beginning lead to robust and sustainable decisions about science and technology.

Debate designer Hajo Neubert and Industry Representative Steffi Friedrichs (c) EUSJA
Debate designer Hajo Neubert and Industry Representative Steffi Friedrichs (c) EUSJA

Why shall science journalists instigate this process? ”They have the knowledge, keep the distance and are observers of research”, Neubert noted.

Lackinger agreed that science and media need to engage in more closely monitored feedback cycles. Unkeepable promises of science are often due to improper reporting and media hypes, he regretted. ”The right balance is the challenge”, he demanded. The physicist explained nanotechnology and used the example of carbon nanotubes.

Research on graphene has become one of the hottest topics in nano-science”, he stated. While consumer products have not become available, even 10 years after the discovery, they continue to have a large potential for a new generation of electronic circuits and chips.

Nano physics (c) EUSJA
Nano physics (c) EUSJA

Friedrichs described nanotechnology within a field which is ”pulled by the market and enforced by policy”. Despite of this tension “the benefits are too important for any country to miss out on”.

Products made of nano-materials could

  • reduce CO2 emission
  • replace many toxical materials currently being used
  • largely lessen the consumption of raw materials.

She assured that test programs are under way and ended with a pledge for more communication: ”The responsibility must be shared by all stakeholders, in order not to stifle elements of our society’s  sustainability”.

Environmental concerns: Lone Mikkelsen (c) EUSJA
Environmental concerns: Lone Mikkelsen (c) EUSJA

Mikkelsen agreed ”that there may be benefits, but we cannot ignore the dangers”, she warned. Among the 12 lessons learned in 20 years she singled out the environmental and health hazards ”which need to be monitored”.  The ”unknown unknown” still persists and we remain in the state of the ”paralysis of the analysis”.

She noted a misinterpretation of science where ”no evidence of harm” is mistaken for ”evidence of no harm”. Risks always come first, demanded the representative of environmental protection, especially regarding allegations that nano particles enter the body: ”We have to act on early warnings.” Friedrichs quoted statistics compiled by the European Commission which expects for 2015 sales of nanoproducts with a value of two trillion euros.

Her colleague from the Danish Consumers Council Jorgensen supported her view. Regarding the hazards he mentioned new sunscreen sprays available in Sweden. They contain nano particles which evidently can be inhaled very easily.

Claus Jorgensen explains consumer rights (c) EUSJA
Claus Jorgensen explains consumer rights (c) EUSJA

He continued that only in Denmark there are 1200 products on the market which contain nano-materials, among them many cosmetics. ”There is a lack of knowledge of these products”, he observed ”and nobody knows the risks”. Of course the society can benefit from nano products, Jorgensen consented, but ”stronger regulation is needed” such as labeling the products and the establishment of a national information center.

After these presentations of five minutes each the moderator threw the ball at the roundtables. She asked for a discussion of the topic after which a speaker should present three bullet points with comments, questions, concerns. During this phase the stakeholders went from table to table and made themselves available to answer arising questions. The individual debates got under way without the aid of a special moderator and were presented afterwards  by roundtable speakers.

Nano physicist Markus Lackinger discusses science (c) EUSJA
Nano physicist Markus Lackinger discusses science (c) EUSJA

Dino Trescher, editor of, stated as a result of the group discussion that more readily available data is needed to satisfy the public right of information. From his own experience with the topic the journalist added that ”the existing data bases have loopholes”. His conclusion: ”If there is no data there should not be a market.”

The speakers of the other roundtables reaffirmed a general notion that there is not enough information and data available which the concerned public can access. ”WHERE do we find it?” was the overriding question. There also remains confusion, as added by other speakers, about the definition of what nanotechnology is: ”WHAT exactly do we talk about?”

The chairlady summed up the feedback from the roundtables with the statement ”We have a lack of knowledge”. Then she turned over the debate to the stakeholders and asked for short responses.

Lackinger responded that nano-material consists of particles smaller than 100 nanometers and products made of these are called nano products. This he had outlined in his presentation but obviously it is difficult to digest by even an interested audience.

Roundtable report (c) EUSJA
Roundtable report (c) EUSJA

Making nano even more visible could help to bridge the knowledge gap. An example: A sheet of paper is one hundred thousand (100 000) nanometers thicker and one single gold atom is about one third of a nanometer in diameter (

Friedrichs responded to the call for more regulation that cosmetics are regulated since 2009. Many products are properly labeled, ”but how many consumers bother to take a look?” she asked.

Mikkelsen agreed that ”yes, they are labeled, but not regulated”. Local governments and the EU must provide more information and data bases. Jorgensen pointed out one important source of information

Final round: Dino Trescher (r.) demands: no data, no market (c) EUSJA
Final round: Dino Trescher (r.) demands: no data, no market (c) EUSJA

An overall wrap-up at the end of the nano debate was given by Menelaos Sotiriou, head of Science View Athens, organizer of science conferences and journalistic trainings in Greece, associated board member of the European Science Journalists EUSJA and its expert on EU projects. The debate in Kopenhagen showed that ”the public needs to be engaged from the early stages of research” he stated. Also young people and schools should be encouraged to particpate.

The Horizon 2020 program of the EU will make funding for this type of public dialogue available. Furthermore he remarked that EUSJA is already partner of Nanodiode and will enhance the stakeholder engagement. Thus ”the public becomes a co-creator” of science, Sotiriou concluded.


General Info:

Nano Debate Announcement
Press Release PRESS RELEASE_EUSJA Nano Science Debate@ESOF 2014
Method Design:
Debate Video:

Nano Debate Structure & Schedule (75’’)
Introduction & purpose (5’’)
Stakeholder statements (5’’ each)
Discussion at round tables in the audience (15’’)
Presentation of questions, conclusion, concerns (3’’ each table)
Feedback of the stakeholders (3’’ each)
Wrapup, documentation, draft of a resolution/declaration (5’’)

Links (Online Platform German Science, mostly in German) (Presentation of format at PCST 2014 Salvador, Brazil, in English) (Manual, in German in English) (Euroscientist Report)

Written Stakeholder Statements & Powerpoint Presentations

FINAL Stake Holder Statements ESOF Nano Debate
ESOF Mikkelsen PPP
ESOF Friedrichs PPP





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