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Scientists are calling for a public debate into nanotechnology to dispel fears about the new science and prevent it being labelled as "another GM".

Scientists are calling for a public debate into nanotechnology to dispel fears about the new science and prevent it being labelled as "another GM".

The Royal Society says today in a report that nanotechnology - which uses molecule-sized parts as small as a billionth of a metre to do otherwise impossible tasks - could bring a huge economic boost to Britain.

Existing uses include sunscreens, tumour treatments, beauty products and stain-proof trousers. But the report warns that over-zealous legislation could put Britain at a disadvantage in the field. "The people who have been putting it together have taken a very wide spectrum of views," said one person who had seen the report.

In the past fortnight, Prince Charles has expressed concerns about the science. Writing in The Independent on Sunday, he said: "There will have to be significantly greater social awareness, humility and openness on the part of the proponents of emerging nanotechno- logies than we have seen with other so-called 'technological advances' of recent years."

British scientists said yesterday that the risks were intangible, and likely to be limited. "It's like fire," said Ottilia Saxl,of the Institute of Nanotechnology in London, "we know how useful it is in the house, but we are careful not to set the house alight."

Scientists fearthe debate will degenerate into entrenched positions like those taken over genetically-modified (GM) food and crops, where proponents of the technology were distrusted, leading to its eventual failure.

Tony Ryan, ICI professor of physical chemistry at the University of Sheffield, who is trying to build nano-scale systems, said: "I'm an unadulterated fan of GM, and we badly mismanaged that by trying to pontificate to people. The big problem is for us to communicate."

He said the biggest fears - of "grey goo", in which self-reproducing nano-scale robots destroy living things - were unfounded. "Nobody has managed to make a chemical reaction that can reproduce itself, much less a robot," he said.

He said that nano-scale applications have to deal with different problems - and potential - from everyday life. "Everyone seems to be obsessed with [the film] Fantastic Voyage [in which people are shrunk and injected into a human body]. But the reality is that you can't, for example, make an internal combustion engine smaller than a third of a millimetre, because of heat dissipation problems. At the nano scale, surface tension is far more important than at our size. People need to understand that sort of difference."

Ms Saxl said nanotechnology was fast becoming a frontline area for commercial applications: the Nanotechnology Institute now includes 180 small UK companies, and the scheme is due to expand into Europe.

"A big difference between this and, say, the dot-com boom is that all computers use the same sort of technology. But with this, there's real intellectual property being created."