Deja vu all over again?

Today the UK’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution released a new report on the potential risks of new nanomaterials and the implications of this for regulation and the governance of innovation. The report – Novel Materials in the Environment: The case of nanotechnology is well-written and thoughtful, and will undoubtedly have considerable impact. Nonetheless, four years after the Royal Society report on nanotechnology, nearly two years after the Council of Science and Technology’s critical verdict on the government’s response to that report, some of the messages are depressingly familiar. There are real uncertainties about the potential impact of nanoparticles on human health and the environment; to reduce these uncertainties some targeted research is required; this research isn’t going to appear by itself and some co-ordinated programs are needed. So what’s new this time around?

Andrew Maynard picks out some key messages. The Commission is very insistent on the need to move beyond considering nanomaterials as a single class; attempts to regulate solely on the basis of size are misguided and instead one needs to ask what the materials do and how they behave. In terms of the regulatory framework, the Commission was surprisingly (to some observers, I suspect) sanguine about the suitability and adaptability of the EU’s regulatory framework for chemicals, REACH, which, it believes, can readily be modified to meet the special challenges of nanomaterials, as long as the research needed to fill the knowledge gaps gets done.

Where the report does depart from some previous reports is in a rather subtle and wide-ranging discussion of the conceptual basis of regulation for fast-moving new technologies. It identifies three contrasting positions, none of which it finds satisfactory. The “pro-innovation” position calls for regulators to step back and let the technology develop unhindered, pausing only when positive evidence of harm emerges. “Risk-based” approaches allow for controls to be imposed, but only when clear scientific grounds for concern can be stated, and with a balance between the cost of regulating and the probability and severity of the danger. The “precautionary” approach puts the burden of proof on the promoters of new technology to show that it is, beyond any reasonable doubt, safe, before it is permitted. The long history of unanticipated consequences of new technology warn us against the first stance, while the second position assumes that the state of knowledge is sufficient to do these risk/benefit analyses with confidence, which isn’t likely to be the case for most fast moving new technologies. But the precautionary approach falls down, too, if, as the Commission accepts, the new technologies have the potential to yield significant benefits that would be lost if they were to be rejected on the grounds of inevitably incomplete information. To resolve this dilemma, the Commission seeks an adaptive system of regulation that seeks, above all, to avoid technological inflexibility. The key, in their view, is to innovate in a way that doesn’t lead society down paths from which it is difficult to reverse, if new information should arise about unanticipated threats to health or the environment.

The report has generated a substantial degree of interest in the press, and, needless to say, the coverage doesn’t generally reflect these subtle discussions. At one end, the coverage is relatively sober, for example Action urged over nanomaterials, from the BBC, and Tight regulation urged on nanotechnology, from the Financial Times. In the Daily Mail, on the other hand, we have Tiny but toxic: Nanoparticles with asbestos-like properties found in everyday goods. Notwithstanding Tim Harper’s suggestion that some will welcome this sort of coverage if it injects some urgency into the government’s response, this is not a good place for nanotechnology to be finding itself.

4 thoughts on “Deja vu all over again?”

  1. Richard,
    I agree that it is depressingly familiar although politicians seem to be rather pachydermal when it comes to all things nano and there does seem to be a feeling of both exasperation and desperation with the UK Governments total lack of interest in the subject. While Obama’s scientific advisory networks give us some degree of hope that policy in the US may move in the right direction, the UK Government has a twelve year history of setting up committees and then ignoring the results.

  2. I should add that it was the Front page of the Daily Mail screaming about Prince Charles’ Grey Goo fears that helped trigger the Royal Society report on nanotechnology – so perhaps this is the only route to stimulate government action. If science policy is being made through the filter of the Daily Mail rather than the science community then we do indeed have a very large problem

  3. “If science policy is being made through the filter of the Daily Mail rather than the science community…”

    Now there’s a thought to give you nightmares!

    The UK media reaction to all this is predictable, but still depressing. Hopefully at least some people will read the more balanced reporting in today’s Independent.

  4. I suspect that at least some of the coverage has been driven by comments from the Royal Commission in interviews on the use of “harmful” asbestos-like “carbon nanofibres” in clothing and car tyres – even though I’m not sure nanotubes are being used in these applications in a way that would lead to harm.

    Interestingly, there is no mention of these specific uses that I can find in the report itself.

    In contrast to some of the media coverage, The Independent has published a surprisingly balanced article on the issue today:

    There’s hope yet 🙂

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