May 01, 2005

Debating Nanotechnologies

Public dialogues on nanotechnology have been on the wish list of almost every government in recent years, but the problem always remains, how do you begin a sensible dialogue on an issue as broad and complex as nanotechnology? We have been examining this problem in the context of a number of EU funded projects, and it seems that public dialogue tends to be somewhat random. While there was a great deal of debate on what the internal combustion engine world mean for society, there was very ittle debate over the use of plastics (our thanks to Professors Arie Rip and Alfred Nordman for the discussing these issues with us recently). Of course it is much easier for non technical specialists to understand the concept of replacing horses with machines than getting to grips with the impact of control over polymerisation, which has led to everything from plastic bags to liquid crystals.

While the short term impacts may be clearly understood, how many of these debating the internal combustion engine could have seen how the reliance on imported energy would effect the global economy, or the chronic pollution problems caused by discarded plastic bags?

An initial public consultation has just taken place in Wisconsin, and a brief report is given in the Capitol Times. More interesting is the conclusions of the consultation, which reaffirms our faith in human nature by indicating that people can talk some sort of sense about nanotechnologies if you give them the right information first (something that doesn't seem to be the case in the investment world). The list raises some important issues, so we hope you will bear with us as we discuss several of them in more detail.

• Government should develop a clear and precise definition of nanotechnology in order to determine which products should fall under related regulations

The public is confused, governments are confused, and we haven't found evidence of any government study spending less than a quarter of its time debating the definaition of nanotechnology. We tend to favour a somewhat looser definition of “Controlling physical properties by defining matter with molecular precision” given by Prof Mark Welland, at the University of Cambridge. This simple and elegant definition of nanotechnology does away, at a stroke, with any debate over whether something 100.1 nm in size is nanotechnology, or any debate over thin films, coatings or semiconductors.

• Producers of products that contain nanomaterials should be required to prove that their products are safe.

A good point, but one already covered in the existing legislation For example, if you put nanomaterials into a drug, the drug will have to be passed as safe by the FDA, and the same applied to many other applications. There is also the issue of future liability, i.e. if you sell something that is later proven to be dangerous you tend to get sued.

• Specific health and safety testing processes should be developed for nanomaterials.

In light of our statement above we are not convinced of this. Of more use would be to ensure that existing safety testing takes account of nanoscale phenomena, for example does the testing of the toxicology of a compound also take into account effects related to size?

• The popular media should provide more in-depth information on nanotechnology research and product development.

While we do our best to stamp out nanobot related misconceptions, most of the media starts here, hence the problem.

• Products using nanotechnologies should be labeled, and those with potentially harmful effects should have warning labels.

Ah ha, do we detect the influence of the anti GMO movement here? This is a little like labelling products using chemistry, and we will wind up sticking a label on almost everything. On the other hand not to label products with potentially harmful effects is irresponsible and criminal. As discussed above, all products which have the potential to cause harm must be labelled as such. Just because something is a hazard doesn't not always make it a risk. Hazards are intrinsic, for example a bottle of acid, but one can manage the risk by putting it in a bottle labelled acid rather than coca cola, and locking it in a cabinet where access is only allowed to people who have undergone training in handling acids.

Labelling will no doubt be a major issue at the Nano4Food conference in Wageningen this June

• The public should have access to the results of private corporations' tests of nanotechnology materials.

We presume that this refers to health and environmental data. Even so, it’s a tall order.

• Scientists should regularly report on funding of and results of research in a way that is accessible to and understandable by lay people.

While admirable, the resultant dumbing down of Nature to the level of the Sun could be counter productive. Better informed journalists, such as those at New Scientist, provide an important link between the ivory tower and the everyday world, and tend to be far better at communicating than most scientists we know.

On the other hand, we could argue that The Sun has a vastly larger readership than Nature + New Scientist put together. What’s more, the readership of The Sun is not a self-selected science loving audience as is the case for the other two. Readership covers bricklayers to CEO’s to global heads of departments within investment banks.

On top of that, The Sun has garnered many awards for it’s coverage of scientific issues, not least of which a note of appreciation from The Royal Society, so it could be argued that The Sun (or any other mass market tabloid) is an ideal conduit through which to communicate science to the masses, provided that science stays well away from politics in which case things may well get distorted.

• A government body should be formed to regulate public and private nanoscale research and development.

Public R&D is already subject to controls via the various scientific funding agencies, but there is little prospect of controlling private R&D. If you can’t look at GMOs and stem cells in one country business simply moves to another. This statement may enrage those calling for tighter controls, but it is the business reality, and part of what makes the world go around. Genies are always tricky to coax back into their bottles.

• Citizens should be involved in nanotechnology policy development.

They already are, and as this Wisconsin experiment shows, their conclusions are not a million miles away from those of the Royal Society. What is really needed is continual involvement, as these citizens will gain knowledge and insight with time, and be able to make more informed decisions. While one off studies such as this, and that of the Royal Society are useful, the world of nanotechnologies does not stand still.

• All government funding for scientific research should include ethical considerations and interdisciplinary oversight.

This is already a prerequisite for EU funding.

• Nanotechnologies should not be used to invade citizens' privacy or to develop weaponry.

(A pause while we don our flak jackets) The applications of any technology are a matter for the democratic process to sort out, not the scientists who often have little connection with, or any idea of the end use for which their science may be put.

Posted by Cientifica at May 1, 2005 04:53 PM

It is well the progress which one makes lately. One must continue the work of the scientists so that peace in the world arrives in top of the hit parades. When I leve the morning and that I brush myself the teeth, I am anxious turning which the things take. But I have especially serious question crucial.

It is a serious doctor ?
What will become our children?
Where is the Michelin catch?
It is still shaking with its pals?
Or it takes part in tournaments of melba toast after Rugby this time ?

Posted by: Antoine Valabregue at May 18, 2005 10:18 PM
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