A new report prepared for the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research outlines an institutional model that meets the safety and security demands of human health, the environment and society. The report draws on an analysis of national and international approaches to nanotechnology regulation.
One of the key findings is that in the case of developing nanotechnologies, the place of classical regulation has been taken by precautionary measures such as observatories, voluntary codes of conduct and stakeholder dialogues. The development of an institutional model is proposed, the Scanning Probe Agency (SPA), as both a necessary and appropriate collective learning process and a means of generating public trust. Its guiding question would be: 'Is nanotechnology in good hands?'
When it comes to nanotechnologies, Americans have a big problem: Nanotechnology and its capacity to alter the fundamentals of nature, it seems, are failing the moral litmus test of religion. Survey results from the United States and Europe reveal a sharp contrast in the perception that nanotechnology is morally acceptable. Those views, according to the report, correlate directly with aggregate levels of religious views in each country surveyed. In the United States and a few European countries where religion plays a larger role in everyday life, notably Italy, Austria and Ireland, nanotechnology and its potential to alter living organisms or even inspire synthetic life is perceived as less morally acceptable. In more secular European societies, such as those in France and Germany, individuals are much less likely to view nanotechnology through the prism of religion and find it ethically suspect.
Europe is a key player in nanotechnology. The European Commission alone, not counting the investments made by individual countries, in 2007 has invested some $720 million into European nanotechnology projects. In contrast to the U.S., much of the science and technology policy in Europe is guided by the Precautionary Principle, although critics argue that this contributes to the high level of bureaucracy and red tape that prevents European companies from speedily translating the continent's leading-edge nanotechnology research into commercial products. Activities concerning the research on environmental, health and safety (EHS) aspects of nanotechnology deal with potential risk issues and are aimed at decreasing uncertainty about potential risks and benefits on the basis of scientific knowledge, for instance research on the toxicity of nanomaterials and manufactured nanoparticles. Since developments in science and technology do not take place independently from society, European policy makers see it as important to support a dialogue on benefits and risks of nanotechnology, including ethical, legal, societal aspects (ELSA) and governance, involving great parts of the public and basing on informed judgment.
Poll after poll shows that most people today, assuming they have even heard the term, don't understand what nanotechnology is. Those who have heard about it are often misinformed by science fiction books and movies or tend to either focus on hype or fear surrounding available information about nanotechnologies. A team of scientists have described the key issues quite nicely: There is a general recognition that few people understand the implications of the technology, the technology itself or even the definition of the word. This lack of understanding stems from a lack of knowledge about science in general but more specifically difficulty in grasping the size scale and symbolism of nanotechnology. A potential key to informing the general public is establishing the ability to comprehend the scale of nanotechnology. Transitioning from the macro to the nanoscale seems to require an ability to comprehend scales of one-billion. Scaling is a skill not common in most individuals and tests of their ability to extrapolate size based upon scaling a common object demonstrates that most individuals cannot scale to the extent needed to make the transition to nanoscale.
The two differing approaches that the European Union and the U.S. take in tackling converging technologies is exemplary for the philosophical difference in how these two geographies approach the development of new technologies. Policies in the U.S., especially during the past eight years, have been, well, shaped is not the right word here, let's say drifting, towards a purely market-driven approach to technology development. In contrast, the European approach places the emphasis on the agenda-setting process itself. Rather than letting the market call all the shots, the European approach favors a guided development where societal, safety and environmental aspects are incorporated into the decision-making process. The main task of the EU-funded project CONTECS was to develop ideas for a comprehensive and integrated European agenda with regard to converging technologies. The project has now delivered its final report.
The Office of Technology Assessment at the German Parliament (TAB) has released a massive 266-pages report on Converging Technologies (CT). The report's author, Christopher Coenen, analyses CT-related political initiatives and activities in the USA, European Union and Germany as well as some other countries. Utopian and dystopian long term visions for Converging Technologies and Human Enhancement offer clear potential for social conflict. Most of the discussions have so far been limited to academic circles, but some have reached political relevance. These focus on the relationship between nature and technology and between the grown and the artificial. Differences in views on what it means to be human are central to these disputes. The criticism against promoters of convergence visions is that the feasibility is doubtful and that the views are inspired by political and ideological motives. The report outlines options for actions and the possible requirements for research and he ends his report by suggesting options for research funding.
One term you hear quite often in discussion about the potential risks of nanotechnology is 'precautionary principle'. This moral and political principle, as commonly defined, states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action. The principle aims to provide guidance for protecting public health and the environment in the face of uncertain risks, stating that the absence of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason to postpone measures where there is a risk of serious or irreversible harm to public health or the environment. In 2001, an expert panel commissioned by the European Environment Agency (EEA) published a report, Late Lessons from Early Warnings: The Precautionary Principle 1896-2000, which explored 14 case studies, all of which demonstrated how not heeding early warnings had led to a failure to protect human health and the environment. It looked at controversial topics such as asbestos, Mad Cow Disease, growth hormones, PCBs and radiation - all of which demonstrated how not heeding early warnings had led to a failure to protect human health and the environment. The expert group that compiled the EEA report identified 12 'late lessons' on how to avoid past mistakes as new technologies are developed. These lessons bear an uncanny resemblance to many of the concerns now being raised about various forms of nanotechnology.
Consider this: in fields like nanosciences and nanotechnology the knowledge doubles in as little as five years, making a student's education obsolete even before graduation. But while the knowledge is growing exponentially, the established mechanism of getting this knowledge into the public domain has not changed much. This begs the question if the traditional scientific paper publishing model is still adequate and able to cope with the fast pace of how things develop in the scientific world. It can take up to two years from the time a scientific study is conducted to the actual publication of its findings in a paper in a peer-reviewed journal. By then, the underlying research might already be out of date.