Five years on from the Royal Society report

Five years ago this summer, the UK’s Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering issued a report on Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties. The report had been commissioned by the Government, and has been widely praised and widely cited. Five years on, it’s worth asking the question what difference has it made, and what is left to be done. The Responsible Nanoforum has collected a fascinating collection of answers to these questions – A beacon or just a landmark?. Reactions come from scientists, people in industry, representatives of NGOs, and the report is introduced by the Woodrow Wilson centre’s Andrew Maynard. His piece is also to be found on his blog. Here’s what I wrote.

The Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering report was important in a number of respects. It signaled a new openness from the science community, a new willingness by scientists and engineers to engage more widely with society. This was reflected in the composition of the group itself, with its inclusion of representatives from philosophy, social science and NGOs in addition to distinguished scientists, as well as in its recommendations. It accepted the growing argument that the place for public engagement was “upstream” – ahead of any major impacts on society; in the words of the report , “a constructive and proactive debate about the future of nanotechnologies should be undertaken now – at a stage when it can inform key decisions about their development and before deeply entrenched or polarised positions appear.” Among its specific recommendations, its highlighting of potential issues of the toxicity and environmental impact of some classes of free, engineered nano-particles has shaped much of the debate around nanotechnologies in the subsequent five years.

The impact in the UK has been substantial. We have seen a serious effort to engage the public in a genuinely open way; the recent EPSRC public dialogue on nanotechnology in healthcare gives a demonstration that these ideas have gone beyond public relations to begin to make a real difference to the direction of science funding. The research that the report called for in nanoparticle toxicity and eco-toxicity has been slower to get going. The opportunity to make a relatively small, focused investment in this area, as recommended by the report, was not taken and this is to be regretted. Despite the slow start caused by this failure to act decisively, however, there is now in the UK a useful portfolio of research in toxicology and ecotoxicology.

One of the consequences of the late start in dealing with the nanoparticle toxicity issue has been that this has dominated the public dialogue about nanotechnology, crowding out discussion of the potential far-reaching consequences of these technologies in the longer term. We now need to learn the lessons of the Royal Society report and apply them to the development of the new generations of nanotechnology now being developed in laboratories around the world, as well as to other, potentially transformative, technologies. Synthetic biology, which has strong overlaps with bionanotechnology, is now receiving similar scrutiny, and we can expect the debates surrounding subjects such as neurotechnology, pervasive information technology, and geoengineering to grow in intensity. These discussions may be fraught and controversial, but the example of the Royal Society nanotechnology report, as a model for how to set the scene for a constructive debate about controversial science issues, will prove enduring.