Are we on a nanotechnology joyride?

Are we so caught up in the thrill of nanotechnology, that we are blind to future pitfalls?  Are we having the new technology ride of our lives—with someone else’s future?  Are we living for the nanotech moment, and leaving the consequences to others to deal with?  In short, are we on a nanotechnology joyride?

The analogy doesn’t hold up that well to scrutiny.  But reading this week’s excellent article on nanotechnology in The Economist (A Little Risky Business, November 22) and Natasha Loder’s accompanying blog (The risks of nanotechnology, November 23), it struck me that we are still struggling to grapple with the potential consequences of our actions when it comes to nanotech.

In her blog, Loder writes

“While governments around the world have been falling over themselves to push money into nanotechnology research, they have been slower to fund and co-ordinate necessary work on risk assessment, nor to establish how they intend to apply existing regulatory frameworks to nanoparticles.”

For most people, the “thrill” of nanotechnology is its potential to make the world a better place—to create wealth and jobs, and revitalize economies; to improve the performance of products we use every day; and to solve difficult problems like treating cancer, getting clean water to people who need it, and generating clean, renewable energy.  Yet ironically, a lack of foresight on how to use emerging nanotechnologies wisely is in danger of preventing the very benefits we are hoping for.

Loder continues,

“Increasingly, [a lack of information on risks and regulation] is having an unsettling effect on nanotechnology companies. The large ones are doing (and can afford) the due diligence in safety research. The small ones are not doing the research, cannot afford it, and have little incentive to do so. Yet these are the companies that are out on the frontlines creating
very novel materials.”

The Economist makes the point that

“Firms must make sure that the goods they produce are safe for consumers, that their workers are healthy and that their factories and products do not cause damage to the environment. On the whole, that is the right approach in a market economy, but the uncertainties make it hopelessly over-optimistic for nanoparticulates”

Foresight requires relevant knowledge that comes from strategic research, yet even at this level, we seem to be struggling.  The Economist again:

“Earlier this year the Council for Science and Technology, which advises the British government, warned that progress on risk research into the toxicology, health and environmental effects of nanomaterials was far slower than promised. It said there was a “pressing need” for a
strategic programme of spending.

It is much the same story in America, where the co-ordination and planning of risk research is also taking years longer than anyone would have imagined. This has frustrated Brian Baird, the chairman of one of Congress’s science committees. On October 31st he told the government’s National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), that it was not acceptable that its EHS strategy, and its implementation plan, had not materialised some 18 months after it was due.”

Maybe “nanotechnology joyriding” is too strong an analogy, but it sometimes seems that we are in danger of driving into the nanotechnology future with our eyes wide shut.  I’m all for the “thrills” of a nanotech future, but would rather have the foresight to avoid the “spills”.  As The Economist points out “no-one wants to stifle the innovations and potential benefits that nanotechnology promises”.  To realize these benefits, perhaps it’s time we learned to be responsible drivers.

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This blog first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in November 2007

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