A critical verdict on the UK’s nanotoxicology record

As I trailed a couple of days ago, the Council for Science and Technology yesterday published their report assessing the UK government’s progress in meeting the commitments it made in response to the 2004 Royal Society report on Nanotechnology. The report, Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: A Review of Government’s Progress on its Policy Commitments (PDF, 327kB), is, as widely expected, rather critical of the Government’s response, particularly on the issue of funding research and providing an evidence base in the area of nanoparticle toxicology. This BBC online piece picks up most of the major themes.

The thrust of the report is unequivocal – the government promised an extensive program of research into the toxicology and health and environmental effects of nanomaterials, and this research has not happened. The reason for this is equally clear – money wasn’t set aside to fund it. Instead, it was decided to rely on scientists coming forward with funding proposals to be judged, in competition with proposals in other areas of science, by peer review. That this approach would prove to be completely inadequate was widely predicted at the time, and those predictions turned out to be entirely correct. As I wrote myself a year ago here: ‘This seems to me to be a category error – the science we need to underpin regulation isn’t necessarily good science as defined by peer review, and if the capacity to do the research isn’t there one can’t just expect it to appear spontaneously.”

The Science Minister, Malcolm Wicks, was questioned about the report on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today program. In his interview – downloadable here as an MP3 file (the interview is the last item) – he accepts the basic thrust of the criticism, but blames the reseach councils (in particular the Medical Research Council) for not being proactive, and scientists for not coming forward with the proposals. This, of course, is precisely the point. To be fair to him, he’s taking the flak for decisions made by his predecessor. A full, formal government response to the CST report will presumably follow.

8 thoughts on “A critical verdict on the UK’s nanotoxicology record”

  1. Richard – Reticent as I am to be critical of the institution of Science as it is practiced in the UK, for my crew has benefited so greatly from it, I find myself siding with the report of the Council for Science and Technology, Science should have spoken. While I have yet to finish the Evidence, so openly provided [http://www2.cst.gov.uk/cst/news/Files/nano_review_evidence.pdf] the impetus seems to be clear that the Government appeared, as you have said, to have expected the community to step forward with input.
    We, as in all of society, are on the verge of benefiting from a whole new field of discovery. We are on the verge, some paddling hard to be the first to peak over the crest of the wave, while others waiting, satisfied to set and watch.
    I suggest it is important for the whole of society to be informed, ti be aware of what this emergence is about, and the risks involved. However it is also important that we do not allow the prospect of risk to hinder this emergence. The last thing we want is for the technology to remain languishing in a lab, or worse, not be developed at all because of a perception of risk. It is the taking and acceptance of risk that has created the humanity we have today and while many mistakes have been made, it is not a reason to not proceed.
    So the committee has met, Science Minister has spoken, and the Tabloids will have their day, and at the end if this day, when the world has not ended, or even become a bit more jaded, I leave with the expectation, no, the Challenge to us all, to get on with the job of developing tis whole new world in as safe a manner as possible, and if perchance a learned Barrister graces the threshold, Assessment of Risk in hand, remember William Shakespeare had it right.

  2. Whatever criticisms one might have about the way UK government has acted, they should receive credit for having put this mechanism for independent scrutiny in place. One needs to remember that the CST is itself a body set up by government, and for that reason alone its criticisms will carry a lot of weight.

  3. It seems a bit rich for the government to blame academics for not submitting enough good quality proposals. At the EU level there is no shortage of excellent research proposals, many of which involve UK institutions.

    While the original RS report showed the way that nanotech thinking was evolving, subsequent UK policy has unfortunately focussed on collecting mountains of evidence and watering down any subsequent conclusions to the level of terminal blandness.

    There are real questions that need to be answered, and another game of passing the buck and commissioning another policy paper does nothing to address these.

  4. I agree with Richard, in what has historically been the British ethos, the government stood up and said what it determined had to be said, forthright and well found based on the information before it. What happens now is up to the receivers, how they respond, what actions they take will tell the story in the future. The CST has spoken with all the weight it carries and it is now up the the field to pick up the ball and carry it and in doing so, do the right thing.
    We all, as a community, brought together at the speed of light must become ever more knowledgeable of this emerging technology, the benefits and the risks, for with knowledge alone can informed decisions be made.

  5. I’d say the biggest “risk” is an out-dated patent regime slows the rate of novel nanotechnology products; turns a system of innovation into a capital-destroying process. I’m more worried I’ll get asthma from living near a truck-route than I am worried about exposure to nanoproducts, for now.

    Probably best is to set up the framework of a trust (crown corporation) for funding good nanotesting/nanoinspection “FDA” agencies, for when/if the flood of nanoproducts arrives. The chief risk is to the researcher who doesn’t realize he is also being paid to be the guinea pig in all this. Train extra researchers for fodder.

  6. Phillip, you’re definitely right to be most worried about the nanoparticle exposure from diesel engines, and in addition to the asthma you should worry about cardiovascular diease, scarring, cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (see here).

  7. Richard, Have you noticed the Government has responded to CST’s report? Came across it by accident at http://www.cst.gov.uk/cst/news/. Dated May, and signed off by Malcolm Wicks, then Science Minister. I guess Ian Pearson, in the new Department of Incomprehensible Unrecognisable Symbols (DIUS) takes on the nano-brief now?

  8. Lyn, yes, I saw the response, which got a bit lost in the excitement of the run-up to the Brown takeover. It probably is significant that nanotechnology issues are to be considered by a ministerial level committee, though Malcolm Wicks didn’t stay in the job long enough for anything to happen on that front. My understanding is indeed that Ian Pearson now inherits this but nothing is going to happen for a month or two.

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