Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A sign of the times?

The ETC Group, erstwhile campaigners against nanotechnology, have launched a competition for the design of a ‘nano-hazard’ symbol analogous to those used already to denote toxicity, biohazards or radioactive materials. My commentary for Nature’s muse@nature.com on this unhelpful initiative is here.

I worry slightly that the ETC Group is a soft target, in that their pronouncements on nanotechnology rarely make much sense and show a deep lack of understanding of the field (and I say this as a supporter of many environmental causes and a strong believer in the ethical responsibilities of scientists). But I admit that the announcement left me a little riled, filled as it was with a fair degree of silliness and misinformation. For example:

Nanoparticles are able to move around the body and the environment more readily than larger particles of pollution.” First, we don’t know much about how nanoparticles move around the body or the environment (and yes, that’s a problem in itself). Second, this sentence implies that nanoparticles (here meaning human-made nanoparticles, though that’s not specified) are ‘pollution’ by default, which one simply cannot claim with such generality. Some may be entirely harmless.

Some designer nanomaterials may come to replace natural products such as cotton, rubber and metals – displacing the livelihoods of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.” I don’t want to see the livelihoods of poor, vulnerable people threatened. Yet not only is this claim completely contentious, but it offers us the prospect of a group that originated from concerns about soil erosion and land use now suggesting that metals are ‘natural products’ – as though mining has not, since ancient times, been one of the biggest polluters on the planet.

Nano-enabled technologies also aim to ‘enhance’ human beings and ‘fix’ the disabled, a goal that raises troubling ethical issues and the specter of a new divide between the technologically “improved” and “unimproved.”” Many of these ‘human enhancements’ are silly dreams of Californian fantasists. There’s nothing specific to nanotech in such goals anyway. What nanotech does show some promise of doing is enabling important advances in biomedicine. If that is a ‘fix’, I suspect it is one many people would welcome.

And so on. I was one of those who wrote to the Royal Society, when they were preparing their report on nanotech, urging that they take seriously the social and ethical implications, even if these lay outside the usual remit of what scientists consider in terms of ethics. I feel that is an important obligation, and I was glad to see that the Royal Society/RAE report acknowledges it as such. But sticking ‘Danger: Nano’ stickers on sun creams isn’t the answer.

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