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Posted: July 13, 2009

Call for New Zealand government to act on nanotechnology challenges

(Nanowerk News) University of Canterbury physicist Associate Professor Simon Brown hopes a report published this week will spur the New Zealand Government to face up to the challenges nanotechnology poses for this country.
The report, Nanotechnology — here and now, which Professor Brown was involved in editing, has been published on the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology (MoRST) website. It details more than 70 actions that need to be taken by the Government in order to address the challenges presented by nanotechnology.
One key recommendation is that the Government should institute a labelling system which allows consumers to identify products containing nanomaterials and that it should maintain a public database of nanoproducts.
“The actions range from the apparently simple — agreeing on a working definition of nanotechnology — to the obviously challenging — working out how, as a small country, we can cope with the plethora of new nanotechnologies being developed overseas and imported into New Zealand,” Professor Brown said.
The report contains the thoughts of the participants of a workshop held in Wellington in April. More than 70 people from many walks of life participated, and although there were many academics and government officials, there were also representatives of Maori and various NGOs, as well as social and environmental scientists.
The workshop, organised by MoRST, the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, the Bioethics Council, the Ministry for the Environment and the Royal Society of New Zealand, was held over two days. High-profile international speakers presented their views and the participants worked to agree on the issues and actions needed to address them.
“The format of the workshop was intended to facilitate discussions aimed at bridging the gap between scientists and regulators on the one hand, and social scientists, environmentalists and the general public on the other,” Professor Brown said.
“Internationally, the experience is that debates about new technologies tend to be de-railed by the diametrically opposed world views of these groups. It is often difficult to reconcile faith in ‘hard science’ with the non-scientific values and beliefs of others in the community. The diversity of the participants meant that there was, at times, some heated debate but by the end of the workshop there was genuine agreement and co-operation with some real consensus on many of the issues and required actions.”
Many of the issues and questions identified at the workshop revolved around fundamental uncertainties in our knowledge of how best to exploit the technology and how to avoid environmental and health issues, Professor Brown said.
“Nanotechnologies undoubtedly have many potential benefits for mankind and for New Zealand but how do we maximise those benefits? Equally, various new nanotechnologies present both known and unknown hazards — how should we regulate new products when there is a lack of clarity about the risks? And how do we balance the benefits and risks?
“Overall, there was a strong sense that the Government has yet to face up to the challenges presented by nanotechnology,” Professor Brown said.
“The report provides only a set of first steps. Nanotechnology products are indeed here and now, and they are with us for a long time into the future. The range of products and technologies we are confronted with is about to mushroom, and we need to put in place systems that allow us to deal with them as effectively as possible. This means finding ways of optimising the benefits and mitigating the risks on an ongoing basis, as new and ever more challenging technologies emerge.”
Source: University of Canterbury
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