Late lessons from early warnings

As the rate of technological progress advances, are we learning the lessons of past successes and failures?  And are we applying these lessons successfully to nanotechnology? 

In 2001, the European Environment Agency (EEA) published a seminal report on developing emerging technologies responsibly.  Through a series of fourteen case studies spanning the past century, a panel led by the late Poul Harremoës examined what has gone right and what has gone wrong with the introduction of past technologies, and what can be learned about introducing new technologies as safely and as successfully as possible.  

The resulting report, “Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000” (PDF, 1.7 MB) draws twelve “late lessons” for decision-makers faced with addressing emerging technologies [1].

Although the report was written before nanotechnology hit the big-time, the twelve lessons (listed below) resonate strongly with the challenges of fostering innovative yet responsible nanotechnologies.  So much so in fact a new commentary just published on-line in the journal Nature Nanotechnology takes a hard look at how nanotech measures up to the report’s findings.  

“Late lessons from early warnings for nanotechnology” (Hansen, Maynard, Baun and Tickner (2008),  DOI:10.1038/nnano.2008.198) systematically compares progress in nanotechnology with each of the EEA’s twelve lessons, and assesses where progress is being made, and where we could be doing better.   

And the findings?  Some of the lessons have begun to sink in, but overall, it looks like a refresher course in responsible nanotechnology wouldn’t go amiss.

In the commentary, we conclude:

“The picture is not as bleak as it could be. While progress towards developing sustainable nanotechnologies is slow, we do seem to have learnt some new tricks: asking more critical questions early on; developing collaborations that cross discipline, department and international boundaries; beginning the process of targeting research to developing relevant knowledge; engaging stakeholders; and asking whether existing oversight mechanisms are fit for purpose.

But are we doing enough? The question seems not to be whether we have learnt the lessons, but whether we are applying them effectively enough to prevent nanotechnology being one more future case study on now not to introduce a new technology. Despite a good start, it seems that we have become distracted on the way – nanotechnology is being overseen by the same government organizations that promote it; research strategies are not leading to clear answers to critical questions; collaborations are not being as productive as is needed; and stakeholders are not being fully engaged. In part this is attributable to bureaucratic inertia, although comments from some quarters – such as “risk research jeopardizes innovation” or “regulation is bad for business” — only cloud the waters when clarity of thought and action are needed.

If we are to realize the commercial and social benefits of nanotechnology without leaving a legacy of harm, and prevent nanotechnology from becoming a lesson in what not to do for future generations, perhaps it is time to go back to the class-room and re-learn those late lessons from early warnings.”

Nanotechnology is all about the future.  But it seems an occasional glance back in history is needed to set the best course of action for success.

EEA’s Twelve Late Lessons:

1. Acknowledge and respond to ignorance, uncertainty and risk in technology appraisal. 

2. Provide long-term environmental and health monitoring and research into early warnings. 

3. Identify and work to reduce scientific ‘blind spots’ and knowledge gaps. 

4. Identify and reduce interdisciplinary obstacles to learning. 

5. Account for real-world conditions in regulatory appraisal. 

6. Systematically scrutinize claimed benefits and risks. 

7. Evaluate alternative options for meeting needs, and promote robust, diverse and adaptable technologies. 

8. Ensure use of ‘lay’ knowledge, as well as specialist expertise. 

9. Account fully for the assumptions and values of different social groups. 

10. Maintain regulatory independence of interested parties while retaining an inclusive approach to information and opinion gathering. 

11. Identify and reduce institutional obstacles to learning and action. 

12. Avoid ‘paralysis by analysis’ by acting to reduce potential harm when there are reasonable grounds for concern. 

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[1]  At the time of posting, the direct link to the “Late Lessons” report was down (that link ishttp://reports.eea.europa.eu/environmental_issue_report_2001_22).  As an interim measure, I have linked to a copy of the report posted at http://www.genok.org.

 

This post first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in July 2008

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