Not Enough (Yet)

I’ve just finished reading Enough, Bill McKibben’s jeremiad against genetic engineering, robotics and nanotechnology. The argument, as suggested in the title, is that we’ve done enough science, and we should stop developing nanotechnology and genetic engineering now, before we lose irrecoverable aspects of our humanity. It’s an important book, a compelling book in some ways, and I’m surprised by how much I agree with it. I accept a lot of McKibben’s arguments about what it is to be human, and like him I find that the posthumanists’ creed that we should happily trade in our humanity for some ill-defined post-human nirvana very unattractive.

I part company with McKibben at the point where he dismisses the claim that we need better science and technology to improve our current human condition. It’s easy, as McKibben does, to find anecdotes about the way in which, say, high technology agriculture has made the lives of third-world farmers worse rather than better. But another excellent book from my summer reading list – Enriching the Earth, by Vaclav Smil, makes it clear how much humanity as a whole depends on intensive agriculture, and in particular on artificial nitrogen fertilizers. For privileged inhabitants of rich countries, like myself and Bill McKibben, a rich diet based on non-intensive farming is entirely possible and indeed very agreeable. But for the majority of the world’s city dwelling population this simply isn’t an option. Smil’s book lays out the figures – non-intensive farming, without artificial fertilisers, could supply only 40% of the world’s current population at current average diets, a figure that would rise to 50% if everyone adopted a minimally nutritious but frugal diet.

This is just one example of the way in which we are currently existentially dependent on technology for the survival of the human race at current population levels. But the technology we depend on is not sustainable and has many well-known disadvantages – taking this example, artificial fertilisers are produced using a huge amount of fossil fuel based energy, with serious negative consequences like global warming, and the direct consequences of waste nitrogen fertiliser run-off on ecosystems are now well known. The world population is now starting to level off, and we do have it in our grasp to have a future in which the world has a stable population with a decent standard of living, obtained in a sustainable way. But to get to this point the technology we have now is not enough. We’ll need clean energy, clean water, better medicine, ways of cleaning up the environment and keeping it unpolluted. Nanotechnology should play a big role in all these developments.

A grand day out

I’ve been to London today, for two meetings, both about nanotechnology but with rather contrasting flavours. The morning saw me at a large TV production company, which is planning a three part series on nanotechnology for a national broadcaster. In the afternoon I was at the Department of Trade and Industry, with a couple of social science colleagues, including Stephen Wood, my coauthor on the ESRC report The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology. We were meeting the civil servant in charge of the DTI nanotechnology agenda, together with Hugh Clare, who is the director of the Micro/Nanotechnology network that the DTI is trying to establish with its 90 million, to discuss how they would like to see the social science research agenda shaped.

This was an interesting glimpse into government thinking. While the Treasury lives by a rigorous creed of free markets and non-intervention, the DTI is doing its best to formulate and implement what’s very reminiscent of an old-fashioned industrial policy, using government-sponsored innovation to rescue the small remnants of the UK’s manufacturing industry, for which these mandarins showed rather a touching nostalgia. What worries me is the central problem of how you define nanotechnology. The DTI is very keen on network building, but these networks are self-selecting and not necessarily truly representative. If you put together a network, how do you know that these are the companies and organisations that are genuinely developing and using nanotechnology to make new products and businesses, rather than those that find nanotechnology a useful label for marketing or fund-raising purposes? Here’s where the kind of network analysis that social scientists are building could be really helpful.

How about the public perception issue? This is something that clearly deeply bothers the DTI, and there was palpable relief at the Royal Society report; clearly they were very comfortable with the modest extensions of regulation proposed in the report, and they seemed pretty confident that the government would simply accept the report and implement it in full. They’re seriously worrying about over-regulation driving not just manufacturing but research overseas, and they cite the example of the relocation of animal experimentation to Hungary. But again, I don’t sense much confidence about what to do with the public perception issue. Clearly no-one in government believes in the so-called “deficit model” of public engagement anymore. (This is the idea if that you simply explained everything clearly enough the scales would fall from the public’s eyes and they would eagerly embrace whatever new technology you were offering). Old fashioned views about risk analysis won’t wash either – you can produce as many risk tables as you like to demonstrate that crossing the road is quantitatively more dangerous than using a nuclear powered toaster to make your genetically modified toast, but if this conflicts with people’s deep intuitions they’ll trust the intuition.

I think it all boils down to visions, and this where I connect with my morning meeting. A company making a TV program for prime-time isn’t going to devote three slots to potential improvements in supply chain management, better impact toughness for engineering thermoplastics, and new avenues in textile treatment. It’s the big visions that are going to make popular TV, and at the moment its the environmentalists, on one hand, and the Drexlerites, on the other, that have those visions, deeply uncomfortable as those visions are to the sober people in government departments and the nanobusiness world. But people need those big narratives to make sense of and get comfortable with technological change, and if people don’t like the narratives that are on offer they’d better develop a compelling one of their own.

An international dialogue on the responsible development of nanotechnology

Science administrators from 25 governments and the EU met a couple of months ago to discuss how the responsible development of nanotechnology should be managed globally. The report of the meeting is now publically available.

One of the most impressive things about the meeting is the attendance list; from the USA Mihail Roco from the National Nanotechnology Initiative, Undersecretary of State for Science and Technology Phil Bond, and the Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger III, and correspondingly significant representation from almost every other country with a significant research and development effort in nanotechnology. This essentially amounts to the developed countries of Europe and the Pacific Rim, and in the developing world South Africa, India and the big economies of Latin America. The glaring absentee was China, presumably because Taiwan was strongly represented.

The themes discussed were the now-familiar ones of health and safety, possible environmental impacts, ethical implications particular at the interface with medicine and the life sciences, and special factors that might impact on developing countries.

As to the primary question of what nanotechnology actually is, I read with approval this paragraph…
“Numerous participants stressed that it was important not to think of nanotechnology as a single technology, but rather of a number of both discreet and interrelated technologies, each of which will have their own risk/benefit profile. It was suggested that it would be helpful to develop some sort of a framework within which important distinctions can be made such that the discussion of responsible R&D of nanotechnology does not become overly broad, and result in sweeping but not very meaningful statements and actions.”

MNT devotees will be disappointed to see their visions dismissed by John Marburger thus:
“Science fiction, some of it quite entertaining as literature, appears to be a major factor in the public perception of nanotechnology. Unfortunately, the entire field acquired a cult-like following in the 1990’s that includes many engineers and scientists who have personal visions about the revolutionary possibilities of nanotechnology. These visions are good for motivating work, but are not scientifically validated. This is a relatively common phenomenon in science, whose function is to match grand dreams against the harsh reality of Nature. We need dreams, visions — and perhaps even fears — in the first place to drive the arduous business of scientific investigation, but we may not assume their validity, nor should we act carelessly upon them as we plan to invest society’s scarce resources.”

Bad news for lab rats

Thanks to Howard Lovy for using a quote from me in his Wall Street Journal article. The article was about reactions to the Royal Society report on nanotechnology, Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties, and my quote said something like: “Good news for the environment, good news for nanotechnology, bad news for lab rats”. Underneath this flippant sounding response there is, I think, a serious point aboout the way the report marked the emergence of a strange alliance between nanoscientists and environmentalists. The effect of this unlikely alliance has been to focus the nanotechnology debate almost exclusively on a single topic, the possible toxicity of nanoparticles, and certainly the headline reactions to the report have been to focus on its recommendations for tightened regulation of the use of nanoparticles and for more research on their toxicity. I’m not saying that it isn’t a good idea to do both of these things; it is, and the measures the report calls for are entirely sensible. But you don’t have to be a fervent devotee of Drexlerian MNT to wish that the report, and more importantly the press reaction to it, had focused a bit more on the longer term, both in terms of potential benefits, and in terms of the more far-reaching social implications raised by issues such as universal surveillance and human enhancement.

What has led to this alliance of convenience? The idea of nanoparticles posing an environmental toxicity risk is of course one that fits very well in the environmental movement’s long running narrative about the chemical industry, so that’s an issue they are very comfortable about highlighting. The reason for reaction of the nanoscientists is more interesting. The issue is very contained, very tractable, and rather easy to suggest remedies for – a bit more regulation and a few more rats sacrificed in toxicology studies. And from an academic point of view, the subject is a little bit boring. The glamorous areas of nanoscience – the ones that get papers in Nature and Science – are in areas like molecular electronics, biological molecular motors, new applications of nanomagnetism, and suchlike. Making nanoparticles is now really a chemical engineering issue, so mainstream nanoscientists may not be that bothered if a few more obstacles are thrown in its commercialisation path.