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Britain's main scientific body has confirmed that there are reasons to be cautious about the potential dangers of 'nanotechnology' — the use of ultra-small devices. The main threat, however, is a lack of understanding.

Is 'nano' the new GM? Or, to put it less enigmatically, are fears of the potential health and environmental dangers associated with small-scale devices based on molecular-scale engineering – known as nanotechnology — likely to stir up the same public opposition, in developed and developing countries alike, as fears about genetically-modified (GM) crops.

There are plenty of those who feel that it could, and even should. Environmental groups, led by those who have been campaigning on GM issues, claim that there is already significant evidence of the potential dangers of, for example, engineered carbon molecules — a typical form of so-called 'nano-particles' — entering the human body and causing unpredictable damage to human cells and tissues. They are demanding a global moratorium on the technology until it is better understood.

Such concerns have been echoed by prominent individuals such as Britain's Prince Charles, who last month raised the spectre that, without proper supervision, nanotechnology could "offer similar upsets" to the morning sickness pill thalidomide, which cased widespread birth defects when prescribed for pregnant women in Britain in the 1960s. And they have even been stirred by some of the scientists themselves, describing the prospect of mini-robots running wild as "grey goo".

A level-headed report produced jointly last week by Britain's Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering puts many of these concerns into perspective (see Science of the small could create 'nano-divide'). The report accepts that our experience of new technologies in the recent past, as well as existing knowledge about the type of challenges to human and environmental health that nanotechnology could present in the long-term, suggest the need for caution.

But while urging that the field should be closely monitored as it develops, the committee found little cause for — or, indeed, evidence of — public alarm. To that extent, it would be wrong to claim that the threats of nanotechnology are any closer to those of genetic engineering than they are, for example, to the threats of new pharmaceutical products. 

Promise vs. reality for the developing world

But there is one sense in which the parallel between nanotechnology and GM is justified. This lies in the challenge of bridging the gap between the promise and the reality of the way that the technology could be used to tackle the needs of the developing world. In both cases, the promise is substantial. Just as proponents of GM enthuse about the potential of new crops that can grow in hostile agricultural environments or meet a range of nutritional needs, so their 'nano' counterparts lay out enthusiastically a range of ways in which molecular level devices offer parallel potential for meeting a wide spectrum of human needs.

The list of the potential benefits of nanotechnology to the developing world is a substantial one. These include, for example, sophisticated membranes for cleaning polluted water, the use of human-designed nanoparticles to target and deliver vaccines, nanotech-based 'bone scaffolds' used to repair injuries from road traffic accidents — recently recognised by the World Health Organisation as a major health challenge in the developing world — enzyme biosensors that can monitor soil or crop toxicity, and even 'nano-magnets' that can clean up oil spills by attracting oil.

Furthermore, it is already clear that many of the more scientifically-advanced developing nations are already fully aware of the potential benefits to be derived from participating in a global 'nano-economy', and have made substantial investments in research and development that will allow them to do this. A survey carried out by the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto has divided these into three categories: 'front-runners' (China, India and South Korea); 'middle ground' (Chile, Brazil, Philippines and Thailand), and 'up and comers' (Argentina and Mexico).

In some of these cases, progress has already been significant. At the same time, there are signs that the development of the technology within these countries is already creating its own tension. Indian researchers, for example, are already among the world's leaders in carbon-based 'nanotubes' that offer substantial applications at the level of micro-engineering. At the same time, there is some concern at the enthusiasm with which the country's president, physicist Abdul Kalam, has spoken about the use of nanotechnology in designing new weapons systems.

Skewed priorities

The problem, as in virtually all fields of science and engineering, is not a lack of interest or opportunity. Rather it lies in the way that the priorities of researchers and engineers tend to be skewed towards products that offer the highest rate of economic return, since that, essentially, is what motivates those who have invested heavily in the research in the first place.

It is ironic, for example, that among the products already generating discussion about possible health hazards are metallic particles that block solar rays and have led to the development of 'see through' sun creams — hardly a top global priority, but a field in which substantial profits are to be made. The first challenge, therefore, for both nanoscience and nanotechnology, as it is with research and development in GM crops (or indeed with pharmaceutical products), is to find ways of ensuring adequate investment in research that meets the genuine needs of the poor.

The second challenge is to build the 'social markets' that will ensure that, once such products have been developed, they will be widely disseminated where they are needed, even if they are unable to generate the economic returns needed to cover the costs of the initial research investment, let alone the additional profits required by private investors. Here, again, the lack of incentives for private investment in research on third world diseases has important lessons.

Market failures, however, are not the only potential obstacle. Others concern the question of intellectual property, another issue on which nanotechnology shares some of the characteristics of GM. The main worry in the latter field is not the fact that patents can be granted on individual genetic engineering techniques; rather, it is the way that patents on some of the underlying science have become a minefield of their own through which new participants in the field are forced to negotiate, often at substantial expense. There is a clear danger, as the environmental group Genewatch described in its evidence to the Royal Society committee, that nanotechnology could move in the same direction.

The way forward

What, then, should be done to minimise the risks of what some have described as a 'nano-divide' opening up between the rich and the poor nations of the world? The first is to ensure that the latter are encouraged to develop the skills and the infrastructure that are essential if they are fully to grasp the opportunities that nanoscience is already creating. Some of this is required at a basic educational level. Other needs exist at the level of advanced training in relevant skills. Both are essential if countries are going to develop the capacity to secure and develop nano-products that meet their social needs.

Secondly, major efforts are needed to build the dissemination channels that will ensure these needs are actually met. There is no lack of imagination within the nanotechnology community of the potential applications of their work; the difficult task is creating the systems of innovation that will ensure that ideas turn into realities. This may involve new forms of public-private partnerships, where one side on its own is incapable of meeting demand satisfactorily. It will certainly mean addressing obstacles, ranging from market failure to intellectual property rights, that increase the difficulties of this happening satisfactorily.

Finally, informed public debate is essential if those who stand to benefit most directly from the new technology are not frightened off by stories about its potential dangers. Such a debate must include authoritative information about potential health and environmental consequences; there is no room for those who dismiss all such concerns as merely the unreasonable demands of whose who seek a risk-free society. It must also include consideration of the obstacles identified above that lie at the root of the threat of a nano-divide.

The media have a key role to play in creating the forum for such a debate. Responsible coverage of nanotechnology-related issues will be critical to generating the social consensus on goals and strategies. Indeed, to the extent that calls for a moratorium from organisations such as the Canadian-based ETC Group, have triggered just such a debate, they should be welcome — provided that they are seen as just that. Media coverage that, while appropriately critical, is both authoritative and constructive, could go far to creating the political conditions by which the nano-divide can be bridged. If successful, it will also ensure that 'nano' does not become the next GM.

Link to full report Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties.

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