Sunday, December 18, 2005

Questioning Nanotechnology?

It turns out that size really does matter. Or, to be more precise, it’s the size of matter that matters. Scientists are manipulating matter at the nano scale (one billionth of a metre) and finding that common materials assume radically different properties compared to their larger scale counterparts. The new nanotechnology is being heralded as the next industrial revolution that will redefine life as we know it. But who asked for their life to be redefined? I certainly didn’t. Did you?

If you haven’t been asked for your views on nanotechnology yet, you’re in the same position as 99.99% of the rest of the population. And it’s not as though the industry is waiting for any kind of nod of public approval. The launching pad of the global nanotechnology industry is being built with around 3,000 new nanopatents a year. In the US, nanotechnology projects have attracted more than $800 Million in public funds (mostly for military applications), making it largest research project since the Apollo moon shot. Globally, nanotech is estimated to grow to be a US$1 trillion industry by 2011 and Australia is running to catch up - with nanotech strategies and development agencies in most States.

The big deal with nanotechnology is the new properties that emerge when materials are manipulated at the nanoscale. The nano-scale material may be more reactive, have different optical, magnetic and electric properties, and be much stronger or more toxic. The list of research projects and possibilities is seemingly endless. In one of the first high profile examples of nanotechnology, IBM spelled out their corporate logo using xenon atoms to make letters that were 5 nanometres high. To put this in context, a human hair is about 80,000 nanometres wide and a red blood cell roughly 7,000 nanometres wide. So when we’re talking nano, we’re talking very very small.

It seems that the exact definition of nanotechnology shifts depending on who you are speaking to – or more importantly – what questions you are asking. If you’re an investor looking for opportunities, or a researcher looking for corporate backing, then nanotechnology is the most exciting area of cutting edge science that is going to be the basis of the next industrial revolution and will redefine both life and non-life as we know it. If on the otherhand, you happen to be asking about whether or not there needs to be some regulation of the health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology, then you’re likely to be told that nanotechnology doesn’t actually exist. After all, it’s really just the same old physics and chemistry that we’ve been doing for decades that has been ‘rebranded’ to help boost science funding.

Surely the nanotechnology industry can’t have it both ways. Or can they? As with the case of genetically engineered organisms, the industry and scientists have managed to successfully argue that nano materials are new and different in order to secure monopoly patents. And then they have then turned around and argued that the materials are in fact the same everyday stuff we’ve been using for decades so they don’t need regulation or safety testing. To date, no regulation has been required despite considerable evidence that manufactured nanoparticles can be hazardous and warrant extreme caution.

There are a wide range of concerns backed by a slowly increasing body of scientific evidence. The fact that nanoscaled substances have much higher and less predictable reactivities, increases their chances of becoming environmental toxins by enabling them bind to molecules and accumulate in organisms at high rates. Nanoparticles are also starting to raise alarm bells in terms of health impacts. Substances under 70 nm are not recognizable to our bodies’ first line of defense, white blood cells, and therefore pass readily into the bloodstream and consequently to all other parts of the body when inhaled. Researchers working in Oxford and Montreal found that titanium dioxide (currently used in sunscreens) nanoparticles catalyze the formation of free radicals in skin cells, which in turn cause damage to DNA, ultimately becoming carcinogenic. In this case it is possible that in our attempt to prevent skin cancer from excessive sun exposure that cancer will develop instead from the substance used as sunscreen.

In response to these and other concerns, The Royal Society in the UK released a report in 2004 recommending that: until more is known about environmental impacts of nanoparticles and nanotubes, their release into the environment should be avoided as far as possible; and that ingredients in the form of nanoparticles undergo a full safety assessment before they are permitted for use in products.

The problem is that nobody is listening. Products containing nanoparticles are already on the shelves, including sunscreens, cosmetics, car parts and silicon chips, and in the not so distant future we can expect them to also be used in food and pharmaceutical products. There is an urgent and growing regulatory gap where product development is being fast-tracked at the expense of ensuring community health and safety. But it is unclear what it’s going to take to trigger a regulatory response. Recommendations from one of the world’s most conservative and well-respected scientific bodies hasn’t seemed to have had much impact. Perhaps the nanotechnology industry is just waiting for the same kind of public backlash that triggered the regulation and wholesale rejection of genetically engineered foods?

Beyond the immediate health and environmental risks, the more complex and far reaching implications of nanotechnology relate to other issues and products that are a little further up the development pipeline – such as molecular manufacturing techniques for putting together products atom-by-atom, the merging of non-living nano-materials and living organisms, and even self-replicating nano-robots.

These transformative technologies raise serious social, ethical and political questions. In addition to economic upheavals, nano-surveillance and military concerns, new developments and the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence are bringing into question the fundamental relationships that define our society. By blurring the boundary between human and machine they question the very essence of what it is to be a human being.

The transformative power of the new nano and biotechnologies has reached a point where surely it must time for us to take the democratisation of science seriously. Over the past two hundred years, scientists have altered our world in ways that elected officials could only dream of doing. Yet they are accountable to nobody. We need a new way of thinking about science and technology that allows those who are affected by the technology to have a say in it’s development, and that allows the development of technology to be shaped by the needs and aspirations of our community – not the other way around.

This is not a trivial problem by any means. Just as scientists are exploring unchartered territory through the emerging bio and nano technologies, so must we also explore unchartered territory in terms of how these technologies are managed – and crucially, in whose interests.

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