Nanotechnology uncertainties and (missed) opportunities: the UK government responds

The UK government’s official written response to the Royal Society nanotechnology report can be found in this 26 page PDF document. As I wrote in this report from the launch event, the response is a missed opportunity to put the UK in the lead in establishing a sensible regulatory framework for the development of nanotechnology in a way that maintains public confidence. This has caused some dismay, not just from anti-nanotechnology activists, but also from pro-business voices. It’s telling that the only coverage of the story in the national press yesterday was in the Financial Times, which had both a news item and an editorial . The FT points out that in potentially controversial technology areas, good regulation can be a source of competitive advantage, and it fears that this response could signal a loss of momentum, with damaging consequences for the nascent nanotechnology industry.

Of course, the report expresses many perfectly fine sentiments about the need to coordinate research, to engage with the public and to develop an appropriate regulatory framework. But, in response to the rather specific recommendations of the Royal Society report, there’s very little in the way of actual action. There are four main categories of issues to be addressed:

  • Research into the potential toxicity of nanoparticles
    The headline here is the dismissal of the recommendation of the Royal Society to fund a dedicated research centre for the study of potential nanoparticle toxicity and the behaviour of nanoparticles in the environment. Instead, research will be commissioned by a Research Coordination Group comprising representatives from research councils and government departments. But does this group have the authority to tell the Research Councils, for example, to set aside money for this purpose? That is not specified, and it seems unlikely.
  • Regulation
    The government announced a study by DEFRA on environmental regulations, to report by end 2005. As far as Health and Safety legislation is concerned, the response reports that the Health and Safety Executive believe that there are currently no gaps in regulations. Chemicals will carry on being regulated under the Notification of New Substances regulations, which won’t be changed in the way the report recommended, to make nanoparticles be considered as new substances. it looks like the Government can’t see the point of doing anything while the replacement for these regulations, the Europe-wide Registration, Evaluation Authorisation of Chemicals, are being negotiated. To fend off accusations of inactivity on this front, the government has announced a review of the advisory committee structure, but anticipates that responsibility for advice on health and environmental risk will remain diffused over a total of 9 different advisory committees . As regards the issue of specifying the inclusion of nanoparticles in cosmetics, the government will look into the matter (no mechanism for this or date for reporting is specified.)
  • Social and ethical issues
    The Royal Society’s recommendation for an interdisciplinary research program on social and ethical issues is not endorsed; instead there is simply a lukewarm general commitment to “delivering the science and society agenda”. It is clear that the Government is content that this be left to the research councils to sort out, but there’s a strong steer that scientists must be involved in any such research programme, and that the research should be geared to providing practical guidance on policy making and regulation.
  • Public dialogue
    There’s general support for the importance of public dialogue, and a rather unspecific commitment to find funds and resources for it. The report cites one specific example – the Small Talk project. The scheme under which this was funded (COPUS – the committee for public understanding of science) has now been replace by another scheme, Sciencewise, which has had a recent call for proposals singling out nanotechnology for special attention. Not mentioned in the response is the ominous fact that government funding under this scheme is conditional on matched funding being raised from the non-government sources. This is unfortunate, as it could easily compromise the perceived independence of this kind of project.
  • Connoisseurs of committees will enjoy this report; in addition to the Research Coordination Group, we’ve also got the Nanotechnology Issues Dialogue Group, which will be reported to by the former and will report to and brief the two year and five year independent reviews, to be carried out by the Council for Science and Technology. This is a classical committee of the great and good (in this case, university vice-chancellors and other senior academics, industrialists and financiers), which, in its quarterly meetings has to provide advice to the Prime Minister on everything to do with science and technology, including both research and education, in government, academia and industry. Fitting in a complete independent review on nanotechnology as well shouldn’t prove too difficult. And of course, there’s the committee to review the advisory committee structure.

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