There could be trouble brewing on the horizon for nanotech.
The trouble I am talking about has nothing to do with nanotech's great scientific or commercial promise. It has to do with politics and the media. The "Green Gang" is starting to focus on nanotech research, and governments around the world are listening. There are rumblings that regulations are needed. They say they want to guarantee the safety of the technology and instill confidence in the general public.
That's Josh Wolfe, writing last April in the Forbes/Wolfe Nanotech Report.
Josh criticizes "several alarmist articles in the New York Times and Washington Post" concerning the toxicity of nanoparticles. He also questions the prudence of the U.S. National Science Foundation in awarding grants focused on nanotech and the environment, and worries about the negative effects of a report by Britain's Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering urging the government to fund studies of nanoparticle toxicity.
Nanotech is still in its infancy, and scientists are just beginning to understand how it can be used to improve products and processes in fields ranging from semiconductors to medicine and energy. The last thing it needs is a "societal debate" and intense government scrutiny. How can you intelligently discuss and regulate something that is still in the discovery and development stage, before it really exists in a practical manufacturing sense?
First, we should be clear about the distinction between today's nanomaterials work and advanced nanotechnology, or molecular manufacturing (see links for more on the differences). It appears that Josh is writing here only about the former. But even if that is the case, we don't agree that it is too early for societal debate and government scrutiny.
Ironically, Josh warns that all this "could snowball into the kind of publicity that created a backlash against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and Monsanto." On the contrary, candor about the risks plus openness about purposes and processes is the best way to avoid a backlash.
What else does Josh recommend?
Now is not the time to sidetrack scientists with debate over regulations. At this point it would be ludicrous to create appropriate regulations that encompass all nanotechnologies in one fell swoop. . . The smart approach is to leave nanotech development alone and instead allow individual regulatory agencies to weigh in on specific products and applications before they are introduced to the market. . . Let's not throw a blanket over nanotech before it begins to blossom.
We agree that it definitely would be a mistake to "throw a blanket over nanotech." We also agree that it is too early now to "create appropriate regulations that encompass all nanotechnologies in one fell swoop."
It would indeed be a mistake to lump all nanotechnologies together. It is critically important to separate the potentially profound implications of molecular manufacturing from the familiar chemical toxicity risks of nanoparticles.
It may not be too early to create regulations covering the use of current nanoscale technologies in manufacturing processes -- but we won't take a position on that because it is not our area of expertise.
What we most disagree with, though, is Josh's prescription to "leave nanotech development alone" and to discourage government scrutiny or societal debate. As long as it is understood that advanced nanotechnology is categorically different from most of today's work, then it definitely is not too early to explore the potential societal and environmental impacts, and to begin developing effective and responsible policy.