Will nanotechnology go the GM way?
By James Wilsdon and Rebecca Willis
Nanotechnology may be new, but already it is bristling with ethical tensions. The question being asked is whether we can handle things differently this time.
Nanoparticles are already found in sunscreen lotions. Though the cosmetics industry insists that the products are safe, it has refused to release any test data into the public domain.
IT IS a recipe that is all too familiar. Take one new technology. Add a dash of social promise and a large dollop of corporate hype. Grill under the white heat of government support.
Before serving, season with a few words of warning from the heir to the throne. Last time we were offered this meal, its main ingredient was genetically modified food. But, after barely a mouthful, in many nations the public spat it out, and for the time being GM has been taken off the menu.
Now the same team of chefs the scientists, business leaders and government ministers who brought us GM have a new creation they want us to try. Nanotechnology is the dish of the day. Based on the ability to manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular scale, this new field is increasingly being talked about with the same enthusiasm that surrounded biotechnology and the Internet in the early 1990s.
Money pouring in
Its growing band of cheerleaders see it as a realm of almost limitless opportunity ``a new industrial revolution'', in the words of one recent parliamentary report. As a result, the money is pouring in. A report last month by US analysts Lux Research estimates that worldwide research and development expenditure on nano will reach $8.6 bn in 2004.
Yet nanotechnology is not without its critics. Concerns about potential risks are beginning to focus on issues of nanoparticle toxicity and the need for tighter regulation. NGOs such as the ETC Group have criticised the vested interests that lie behind the science, and Prince Charles has raised the spectre of Thalidomide in an effort to encourage a precautionary approach.
Nanotechnology may be new, but already it is bristling with ethical tensions. The question is: can we handle things differently this time? Will nano inevitably become ``the next GM''? Or are there ways of escaping the GM cycle of hype, secrecy, fear and conflict, by taking account of social and environmental concerns from the start?
So far, the picture is mixed. In July, the Royal Society (the U.K.'s premier science organisation) published an assessment of the benefits and risks of nano. Its report was thoughtful, balanced and surprisingly precautionary suggesting that the science establishment has learned a few lessons from GM.
Yet even here, there are hints of how it could all go badly wrong. The Royal Society emphasises the uncertain health and environmental effects of nanoparticles and calls for more toxicological research. But the cosmetics industry is already selling us nanoparticles in sunscreens. It insists that these products are safe, but has refused to release any test data into the public domain.
For those of us who have spent the summer lying on a beach slathered in factor 30, this is the point at which alarm bells start ringing. Last time it was not sunscreen but GM tomato paste that appeared with little fanfare and no labelling on supermarket shelves. It was not long before the backlash began.
Big lesson from GM
One of the biggest lessons from GM is that it is not only the risks of a new technology that cause concern.
Controversies arise when people are unable to ask more fundamental questions: what is the technology for?
Who owns it? Who will take responsibility if things go wrong and can we trust them? These questions cannot be answered by committees of scientists or through technical risk assessments.
The public must be involved from the start. Now, while nanotech is still in its infancy, is the time to start a proper public debate, with all of these questions on the table. Public views can then shape the direction of research in a meaningful way.
Above all, we need to move away from the idea that new technologies are developed by scientists and then presented to the public as a done deal.
Science and society must work together to shape the direction of a technology with research processes opened up to scrutiny and debate, and assumptions challenged from the start.
It is only through these new forms of `upstream' public engagement that we will develop technologies that people want. This is a huge challenge. The temptation at every stage will be to fall back into the old ways of doing things assuring safety, closing down debate, assuming that experts know best. But a new approach could offer the ultimate prize science and technology that genuinely serves the common good.
(Note: James Wilsdon and Rebecca Willis are authors of See-through Science, which is published by Demos thinktank (www.demos.co.uk) ©Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
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