Nano-medics of the future: So What?


This week, I stumbled upon a page on the Science: So What? So Everything website describing some of the exciting career paths we might be able to follow using future technology. It’s based upon a report called “The shape of jobs to come” by consultants at Fast Future Research, and related stories have been reported by the BBC,  The Guardian, The Times, and The Telegraph (and maybe more). In at number 2 on the future jobs list was “nano-medic”;

Advances in nanotechnology for creating sub-atomic devices and treatments could transform personal healthcare so we would need a new breed of nano medicine specialists to administer these treatments.

Want to know more? Take a look at a story about the tiny robots changing surgery, and the people who build them, plus career information.

Stephen Fry, a supporter of the So Everything campaign, had this to say;

“This is a fascinating list of jobs. I’d go for the nano-medic first up – that’s exciting, really exciting. To be a pioneer, in the van of a new technology, and one that might deliver spectacular help and improvements to the world – yes please!”

But let’s take a look at the job description. Sub-atomic devices? Devices smaller than an atom? Now I acknowledge that there is some debate as to what will be possible in the future, and admit I’m always a bit wary of futurists’ predictions, but this is so utterly impossible it defies belief. Atoms consist of a nucleus a few femtometres in size (that’s one millionth of a nanometre, maybe someone can figure out the fraction of a width of a human hair…) surrounded by orbiting electrons. The nucleus itself is an unimaginably tiny fraction of the total volume of the atom.

The forces holding the nucleus together are huge, which is why we need particle accelerators to smash nuclei apart. The idea that you could rearrange the constituents of atoms to make a device is beyond ridiculous.

You may think I’m over doing it in my criticism, but the Science: So What? website was set up to promote science to lay audiences and to inspire kids. It’s important that it’s accurate. Initially, I just wanted to find where the idea of sub-atomic machines had come from, poke fun at it, and go about my business, but a little digging uncovered some interesting stuff.

Following the link for further details takes me to a page about a robotic surgical snake on the future morph website, with no mention of sub-atomic nano-devices to be found there or elsewhere on the site. In fact, many of the links on the So What? page are directed to pretty unrelated topics. This didn’t seem right, so I went to the source.

Fast Future Research produced a lengthy (149 page) report on the jobs of the future. I’ve had a scan through, but sadly can’t find any science. This is where the sub-atomic devices claim was repeatedly made, and subsequently reproduced in press releases and on the So Everything site.

In the report, they give a rundown what it might be like to work as a nano-medic, and again sub-atomic devices are mentioned. Next to the title, there’s a nice little academic style reference number, which I happened to track down. You might think that they had consulted someone working in the field of medicine, or nanotechnology, but actually the reference is a web page whose only mention of nano-medicine is this insightful nugget;

Nano-medic Practitioner

Nano-sized machines to deliver health. ‘Nuff said.

Later, in one of the appendices, the job is summarised again, with this reference, an article from Time magazine in 2000 listing top jobs for the future. Nano medicine isn’t one of them, but the plot thickens. Job number 3 on the So Everything list is this;

Pharmer of genetically engineered crops and livestock New-age farmers will grow crops and keep animals that have been genetically engineered to increase the amount of food they produce and to include proteins that are good for our health. Scientists are already working on a vaccine-carrying tomato and therapeutic milk from cows, sheep and goats.

which looks strikingly similar to part of the Time article

New-age farmers will raise crops and livestock that have been genetically engineered to produce therapeutic proteins. Works in progress include a vaccine-carrying tomato and drug-laden milk from cows, sheep and goats.

I guess it could be coincidence… I only found this because I was digging on a specific point, but I suspect that there will be other parts of the report which are as flimsy under scrutiny. Certainly all the references I chased up were largely irrelevant to the points they were supposed to support.

In principle, I support the Science: So What? campaign, and it is important to think about the future of society and technology. But if it’s worth doing, do it properly and consult actual experts. Both Gordon Brown and Lord Drayson praised the report, but it appears nobody actually read beyond the shiny press release, and even that contains very dodgy science.

It’s pretty disappointing given that the public paid for it.

Nano-medics of the future: So What?

20 thoughts on “Nano-medics of the future: So What?

  1. Wow! Fantastic piece of nano-journalism…. a smart investigation with sad marcro-consequences! That is…. all this nano-buzz…it’s all bullshit and fashion, for the time being….and it confirms we are the Copy&Paste generation! Amen

    Good Job! ….well not one of the Top Future Jobs…or may be yes!

  2. Yes, I think the use of the term sub-atomic was a bit of an error on the part of the SSW site, which is unfortunate.

    I am no fan of long range future forecasts like that of the Fast Future Research document, simply because even within the research councils it’s impossible to predict what science is going to get funded 5 years in the future, let alone how this can be extrapolated to the whole science & technology industry up until 2030.

    That 45% of their survey respondents ‘reckonings’ considered the role of nano-medic likely to be the best paid globally was rather cringeworthy and lacked any credible basis.

    In my own opinion, working in the field, I don’t doubt that there will be specialist medical technologists whose principle focus may in fact be the products of current and future medical nanotechnologies research, but the idea of a nano-medic seemed a little silly and vague.

    I would imagine that surgeons and medics in the future may well have nanotechnologies available to them, such as such as fullerine- or viral-capsid based chemotherapeutic delivery vehicles, next-gen biosensors, use of nanoparticles for in situ delivery, targeting and filtration of biological fluids.

    However, I would think any one of these would be considered a tool in an already diverse kit and I doubt there would be call to wheel in a ‘Nano-Medic’ every time a regular medic wants to make use of one of them, any more than they wheel in a chemist to prescribe antibiotics.

      1. Pedro says:

        Journalists are not what they used to be…

        This kind of “inaccuracies” are very typical from journalists that don´t really have a clue of what do they talk about, and don´t bother to learn or to talk to the experts.

        Anyhow… there is Science, and there is popular science, and there is press for both… serious and… not so much. Good point to signal the differences and push for better press.

  3. Janine says:

    I found this really interesting; it sort of amazes me that articles can be published on such a relatively high-profile level, and contain terms such as “sub atomic devices”, yet no-one along the line of people who must have written, read and edited the page thought, “hang on a minute, does that actually mean anything?”.
    Copying and pasting from press releases is such a sad state of journalism that its a shame for the journalists who put time and effort into really researching their stuff. Thanks for digging around about this!

  4. FF says:

    I’m guessing that the majority of lay readers will skim read the term Sub-atomic, without considering what it actually means. Yes it is a pretty large conceptual error, but I guess this just proves that the majority of journalists/public body type people aren’t experts in the field they are asked to pontificate about. The interesting question is, why didn’t the government commission a team of scientists to set up this public body? Or even a website editor who understands the fundamentals of science, so that errors like this don’t make their way into the public consciousness

  5. Agreed, it absolutely is not a problem with journalism. The British government is trying to encourage more people to get into science but then commissions a report based on absolute nonsense.

    It isn’t about careless ”slips” or ambiguous semantics, either. ”Subatomic” means subatomic, and that’s that.

    Science isn’t about soundbites.

  6. Great blog, and a really useful post. I think that it is a terrible shame if the UK Govt is trying to promote science without involving scientists themselves. It appears as though the report was authored by consultants who likely have limited relevant scientific knowledge, and was not submitted to any scrutiny by a panel of qualified professionals (i.e. scientists) working in this field. Shame on them all. This gets a grade D- in my opinion. My own students are held to far higher standards!

  7. Did somebody contact the author of the famous incriminated article?
    It would be interesting to know the other side of the truth… let them discuss their reasons etc.

    The truth about nanoscience is that if you want to attract attention you have always to sell some bullshit and make it appear like it’s sci-fi, otherwise it’s not appealing to people.

    I don’t say this is a good reason to write whatever you want in an article….but…the problem remains: How can you get more people into Science?

    I would start rewarding scientists a bit more… giving us at least some chances to get jobs without the obligation to be Gypsy souls for decades often with ridiculous contracts.

    1. I invited the author to email me a reply, offering to put it up unedited. He wants to explain their approach over the phone, so I’m now waiting for the call.

      I think to get people into science, you just need to be honest. Bullshit generates headlines, but if you show people cool stuff, explain it in an accessible way and don’t patronise, some will be interested. Others wont. C’est la vie. See my post tomorrow for how I would have written about nano-medics.

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