As James Stewart said in It's a Wonderful Life (when Donna Reed's bathrobe was accidentally pulled off), "This is a very interesting development!"
Very interesting, indeed, are the developments occuring in the UK regarding nanotechnology policy. For example, an unexpected agreement (on Howard Lovy's blog) between scientist Richard Jones and eco-activist Jim Thomas. Both complain that the government's response to last year's Royal Society report on "Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties" was completely inadequate.
[T]he UK Government has wimped out -- no specific regulatory proposals (although there will be regulation), no new money for research, no mention whatsoever of addressing societal issues. Nobody seemed very happy with it.
They (the UK govt) have set themselves up for a fragmented and confusing nanopolicy. Basically they have commissioned another review (granted, a more detailed one) of regulatory gaps to report by the end of the year. They have decided to fragment decisionmaking across nine existing advisory committees and various government departments with a new internal government body (Nano Issues Dialogue Group) to try to make sure all those departments talk to each other. They have upset the Royal Society by offering no new money for research into nano-risks and rejecting the idea of a centre of excellence for advice on nanorisks -- so that research and advice on nanotoxicology will be fragmented too.
To top it all there is nary a whisper of how to address big societal questions. Lord Sainsbury explicitly said he didn't feel it was government's role to try to forecast or prepare for the societal, economic and ethical disruptions that nanotechnology will bring: "We don't know what the social implications will be, therefore I see little value in considering them". . .
He's obviously a believer in the school of Nano's revolutionary impact but reckons society will just have to like it or lump it. I find this societal laissez faire astonishing and dangerous. Of course it is government's role to try to forecast what impact technologies will have - they are spending billions of taxpayers money on developing those technologies and good governance depends upon having some sort of assesment of what the future might look like and planning for it. Also in so doing he explicitly is ignoring the Royal Society's warning that the biggest issues to arise from nanotech are likely to be issues of who controls the technology and who benefits. There are seeds of trouble being planted here I think.
We certainly agree that advanced nanotechnology will have revolutionary societal impacts, and that it is in fact the government's role to, along with others, "try to forecast what impact technologies will have."
When the U.S. National Research Council committee issues its initial report to Congress this summer on potential impacts of molecular manufacturing, we hope it will emphasize this forecasting responsibility -- and that the American government will respond more appropriately than did the UK Minister of Science, Lord Sainsbury.
Richard Jones adds:
The UK government had its chance to lead the world in introducing sensible regulation and responsible dialogue about nanotechnology, but it hasn't taken it. For the cost of few million it could have defused the nanoparticle toxicity particle issue, but it's chosen to let it slide on, obscuring the many more interesting and serious issues that will arise as this technology develops.
In answer to a question about "the absence of attention given in the response to longer term issues -- how the technology might affect the poor, the disabled, the issues of control over technology," Jones reports that:
The minister gave this question short shrift, more or less saying that as we don't know how the technologies will be applied in the future, it was impossible to know what their social implications would be, and thus it would be pointless to study them.
If that's an accurate summation of the minister's statement, it's appalling. The only responsible answer to our current lack of knowledge is intensive and comprehensive study along the lines that CRN has recommended.
Finally, this whole discussion again raises the problem of definitions and blurry distinctions. The risks of today's nanoscale technologies (nanoparticle toxicity, etc.) cannot be treated the same as the risks of longer-term molecular manufacturing (economic disruption, unstable arms race, etc.). It is a mistake to put them together in one basket for policy consideration -- each is important to address, but they offer different problems and will require different solutions.