Nanotechnology in Europe - ethical, legal and social aspects

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Europe is a key player in nanotechnology. The European Commission alone, not counting the investments made by individual countries, in 2007 has invested some €560 million (about $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 (see: Late lessons from early warnings for nanotechnology), 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.
ELSA issues go beyond EHS issues and cover such aspects as privacy issues, acceptance, human health, access, liability, regulation and control. In the European approach, information diffusion to a wide public, multipliers and specific target groups, and discussion between nanotechnology stakeholders, policy makers and the public form parts of the overall approach.
As the ongoing discussion with regard to toxic risks or human enhancements demonstrates, it seems very likely that some nanotechnology applications will raise significant ethical, legal or social concerns. This results in a number of important questions about the future of the technology (for more on this, read the conclusions from the 2006 Nanologue project): What will society look like when nanotechnology becomes more mainstream? Will the products be profitable? Are there any negative environmental or health impacts? Who controls the use of nanotechnology? How to deal with liability? Whom will the technology benefit or harm? What are the ethical problems?
All the European Commission's reports and communications emphasize that nanotechnologies have to be developed in a responsible way, "within an open debate that involves the public and that enables interested people to reach their own informed and independent judgments". In March of this year, the Commission published a "Commission recommendation on a code of conduct for responsible nanosciences and nanotechnologies research" which specifies voluntary rules for European scientists and researchers active in nanotechnology.
Altogether, the European Commission has already financed 20 projects in the field of ELSA and governance of nanotechnology during the previous Sixth Framework Program (FP6) and these activities continue with the current FP7 program. Spending for these areas have increased steadily over the past years and currently amount to over €3 million annually.
Distribution of EU funding on ELSA and governance of nanotechnology in all FPs by year, nano-share, given in Euro
Distribution of EU funding on ELSA and governance of
nanotechnology in all FPs by year, nano-share, given in Euro
Includes funding from FP5 to FP7. Amount has been estimated according the share directly related to nanotechnology. *Data for 2008 and 2009 are not complete. (Source: "Commission recommendation on a code of conduct for responsible nanosciences and nanotechnologies research")
European activities for ELSA and governance of nanotechnology are not intended to substitute activities of the European Member States, since ELSA are culturally shaped and governance is often subject to regional or national authorities. However, the importance of the role of European projects should not be neglected: They aim to facilitate cooperation between stakeholders in different Member States, to create a critical mass for topics of European concern, to identify national or cultural differences between regions and Member States or to play the role of a pathfinder for new developments.
A newly released report summarizes the European Commission activities in the field of ELSA and governance of nanotechnology and presents a collection of running or completed projects in FP5, FP6 and FP7 and other Commission activities in the field ("European activities in the field of ethical, legal and social aspects (ELSA) and governance of nanotechnology"). Although the report lists several examples of information campaigns such as the German Nanoreisen, the Oxford University's The Basics of Nanotechnology, or the French NanoCitoyens, numerous initiatives by individual European Member States are not covered by this report so, unfortunately, it doesn't provide a complete picture of all ELSA activities across Europe.
Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
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