A Call For Transparency in Nanotechnology
4 Jan, 2007 01:41 pm
Professor Steven Currall recently published an article in Nature Nanotechnology. He answers our questions about the future and risks of nanoscience. Professor Currall is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise & the Management of Innovation of University College London and Faculty Co-Director of the Institute of Technology at London Business School. His nanotechnology research was was supported by the National Science Foundation through Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology.
There are about 350 plus commercial products on the market containing nanotechnology. Some common examples are sports equipment which are tennis rackets, tennis balls, golf clubs which contain materials that involve nanotechnology. There are also textile applications such as anti-stain clothing, but in general, many of the near term applications of nanotechnology contain new materials which is where a lot of the activity is at the moment. But of course, a little bit further down the horizon, coming quickly are applications in electronics, biomedicine and other areas as well.
Can you broadly outline what the potential risks of nanotechnology are?
I think the way that I would characterize it is that the science and engineering community is currently and has been for the last year or two gearing up for systematic analysis of the properties and nanotechnology materials and devices. We donít know a great deal about some of these properties; in other words, we donít know if they are harmful and also donít know if they are not harmful. As you know, there has been a lot of activity in the research community and by government leaders in the U.S., as well as in Europe and Asia, trying to put in place the systematic framework for gathering information on exactly what the risks of these new materials are. The information is now beginning to come in and itís a little bit premature to say with precision what the risks are.
How can nanoparticles enter the body? How does the human body react to nanoparticles?
We donít know. This research and these topics are really outside of my expertise, Iím a behavioral scientist and not a physician or a life scientist so itís probably best for me to not comment in detail on that. I canít really comment, I feel my contributions are best aimed at some of the other issues.
Can current risk assessment plans properly regulate ? Are there different national approaches to this question?
I think they do differ. Of course, mainly in the U.S., itís the Environmental Protection Agency thatís involved and in the U.K. itís D.E.F.R.A. The E.P.A., I think, has been taken to task by some researchers and some governmental leaders for being a little bit less aggressive than some people would like in developing a regulatory framework for nanotechnology. Their initial position was that there really wasnít a need for a new regulatory framework, assuming nanotechnology would fit into the existing frameworks. But I think that position has become a little bit harder to sustain in the light of all this pressure from other people, so I think itís barely fluid at the moment. This is one of the interesting things about nanotechnology: we are witnessing the unfolding of all kinds of issues involved in risk assessment and regulatory framework and really watching it happen from its earliest stages.
From an ethical point of view, are the benefits of nanotechnology applicable to all countries and socio-economic levels?
There are some who are excited about the prospects for, how shall we say, leveling the playing field that there might be ways that nanotechnology advances can result in greater economic prosperity in underdeveloped countries. There are fairly straight forward examples, such as the water filtration possibilities involved in nanotechnology. There are some researchers who are developing new methods of filtering out bacteria and viruses from water, so theyíre hopeful that those technologies can solve some of the most basic needs of folks in underdeveloped countries. Thatís one type of application that can have an impact on infrastructure and support in underdeveloped countries which could then pave the way for further economic development.
Since nanotechnology is also multi-disciplinary and occasionally an extension or advancement upon pre-nanotech science, what problems might nanotechnology pose for things like intellectual property?
Thatís a very good question. Some people have said that nanotechnology is not so much a technology as a methodology and I think my friend, David Rejeski at the Woodrow Wilson Center (see related Scitizen interview with Dr. Martin Philbert) has referred to nanotechnology as a methodology. That raises all kinds of tricky issues involved in intellectual property because it makes it both a good news/bad news scenario. Itís a good news in a sense that the breadth of the possible applications of nanotechnology; itís bad news in the sense that it can become more difficult to define, more difficult to defend. Legally intellectual property rights might be more difficult to defend legally because it's so broad and I know the U.S. patent office has been coming to grips with a lot of these thorny intellectual property issues just in the last year or two. I believe the number of patent applications going into the U.S. patent office has skyrocketed in the last couple of years, so again, it is one these examples of this interesting and unfolding area.
Do you think that citizens are well-informed about the potential risks of nanotechnology?
I donít think that people are generally well informed about nanotechnology. I think that the figures are sort of creeping up in the last few years where thereís been media coverage of nanotechnology, so more and more people are becoming familiar with it, but when I did my surveys in 2004-2005 only 25 to 30% of the respondents had heard of nanotechnology so there are really a lot of people who donít know what nanotechnology is, much less the details of the risks. One hypothesis that I have, based on my research, is that there are some cross-national differences in the way that consumers perceive risk. For example, the American people tend to perceive new technology, not just nanotechnology, but many new technologies, in that it is innocent until proven guilty so theyíre willing to put their toe in the water beginning to use new technologies. This may be a function of a reasonable amount of trust in the regulatory frameworks especially the F.D.A. in the U.S. Whereas I perceive the Europeans wanting much more reassurance before they begin to use the technology, as sort of guilty until proven innocent. I think thatís one of the differences. I havenít tested that hypothesis directly, but that is speculation on my part, there being some sort of cross-national difference. Some of this, I think, goes back to the whole experience of genetically modified organisms with big differences in the U.S. versus Europe in the way that folks react to that, so I think the better part of the story affects this.
What needs to happen next in order to better regulate nanotechnology?
My interests are not so much focused on how to regulate nanotechnology. My interests are in facilitating the flow of information from the research community that is studying risks and benefits to the public, so Iím more interested in the transparency of the whole process. This is one of the points we made in the article in Nature Nanotechnology; we reiterate the call for transparency between the research community and the public and for the free flow of information. We think that if we can equip consumers with accurate knowledge of what are both the benefits and the risks of nanotechnology then they can make responsible decisions. My interest is not so much in proposing regulatory frameworks but in the dissemination of new research findings and how that impacts consumer behavior.
Do you think there would be some specific steps to take for transparency to happen?
I think it is happening to some degree. I guess that one of the concerns that I have is that, yes, we do absolutely need to be systematically looking at health and environmental risks of nanotechnology, but what Iím actually concerned about, is a sort of emerging asymmetry where there is a sort of a degree of obsession with risk. For example, the NanoBusiness Alliance and has made a great deal of progress as a meeting point for organizations involved in commercialization of nanotechnology. Yet, we still have a long journey ahead of us with respect to the maturity of an industrial consortium that is promoting the benefits of nanotechnology. There are a lot of people who are banging the drum about the benefits, but the efforts have yet to become as systematic as industrial consortia in other industries. For example, in the biotechnology field, we have an organization called BIO and they have these annual conferences every year. This is an organization essentially designed to promote biotechnology, but we donít have the analogue for that in nanotechnology, so what I advocate is a kind of dual focus. I want the industry people to advocate the benefits of nanotechnology, helping us understand what the possibilities are and the great ways that it might affect the public. I also want there to be rigorous regulatory activity and scientific research on the risks of nanotechnologies. What I would like to see happen is a sort of symmetrical balance, not an excessively adversary relationship, but the emergence of some degree of balance between the people who are thinking carefully about risk as well as the people who are illuminating the benefits of nanotechnology and I think when that starts to happen, thatíll be a hallmark of the emerging maturity of the field.
For more information visit the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) at http://cben.rice.edu