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.