Earlier this year, I was one of 30 participants to attend a workshop in Zurich organized by the International Risk Governance Council (IRGC) and concerning a "Conceptual Risk Governance Framework for Nanotechnology."
At the end of two full days of presentation, discussion, and debate, I proposed that we adopt a joint statement that would reflect our views. This proved to be a difficult task, taking more than six weeks.
Here [PDF] is what finally emerged:
The majority of the participants at the January workshop agreed on the following with respect to a risk governance strategy for nanotechnology:
- The need for an inclusive, globally focused, risk governance framework addressing both short and long-term applications of nanotechnology.
- The need to ensure that the interests of all those potentially affected by nanotechnology are addressed, understood and respected by decision makers.
- The need to be cognisant of and concomitant with other global governance systems.
In addition, the participants generally agreed on:
...the categorisation of nanotechnology into two broad frames of reference based on the evolution of knowledge, level of complexity and potential social and ethical consequences, was considered to be a useful starting point from which to design effective risk governance strategies.
The first frame (Frame 1) concerned relatively simple, passive or merely reactive nanostructures with steady behaviour, while the second frame (Frame 2) focused on more complex and/or evolving-active nanostructures and nanosystems, some of which could utilise molecular devices or bio structures as building blocks.
Within Frame 2, there still is considerable variety in the significance and impact of different stages -- or "generations" -- of advanced nanotechnology. The table below shows how these generations are understood:
As you can see, Frame 1 includes only the 1st generation. After I made a presentation on productive nanosystems (i.e., molecular manufacturing) and proposed a 5th generation to cover that, we talked for a while and then concluded that molecular manufacturing would be viewed as part of the 4th generation.
Dividing the development of nanotechnology into these two broad "frames" is an important step in designing different governance strategies for different levels of technology. By stating that "the expected complexity and evolution" of Frame 2 nanotech will bring "unique" risks, we are saying that issues of concern in Frame 1 (e.g., nanoparticle toxicity) are not the same as those in Frame 2.
We spent considerable time during the workshop identifying potential gaps in current risk assessment and management strategies. These were grouped into three areas:
1. Technical Deficits
2. Risk Communication Deficits
3. Social Deficits
Major concerns in the third category ("Social Deficits") were:
- Broad-based and rapid changes in nanomanufacturing processes and new products may lead to a displacement of jobs and major changes in trade balances between countries at a faster pace and in multiple sectors of the economy as compared to the introduction of other technologies.
- From a trade perspective, differences in national regulations and their application may make it difficult for companies to apply standardised products and production processes. A consequential implication is that the significantly new properties and issues of nanotechnology may allow for transference of risk as products are developed in a country with weaker controls and exported worldwide.
- There is a risk that the potential of nanotechnology to address global issues such as sustainable development may be missed if nanotechnology investment policies are not sufficiently well directed. Unfocused investment may also increase the risk for an unbalanced distribution of nanotechnology benefits both within a country and worldwide.
Finally, we considered a range of proposals to address the identified gaps in current risk management.
Our group's "Social Recommendations" are stated as:
- Examine the system whereby companies and individuals can accrue intellectual property rights for basic natural processes and structures to ensure that equitable opportunities are available for manufacturers both nationally and internationally.
- Establish internationally accepted standards for nanotechnology to reduce national differences in risk governance practices and to limit barriers to trade. In addition, establish a role for an international organisation to provide a global and trusted source of risk governance information.
- Government to take the lead in developing and promoting nanotechnology innovation that is socially and environmentally beneficial as well as competitively viable.
- The risks, benefits and possibility for future technologies to catalyse societal change to be identified prior to development because of the potential significant implications of nanotechnology on human development. This is more relevant to Frame 2.
- Support research on the long-term implications of nanotechnology with respect to the human dimension. This is more relevant to Frame 2.
- International coordination of risk governance for potentially high-impact, long-term projects.
- Decision making processes regarding how choices for research and development are made to be more transparent, so that affected individuals and the public are aware of how decisions are made and on what evidence they are based. This is more relevant to Frame 2.
This is not the end of the process. The next step is to review "a practical application of the framework" at a conference on "Risk Governance of Nanotechnology: Recommendations for Managing a Global Issue" to be held on 6th and 7th July 2006 (location TBA).
To view a list of participants in the January workshop, go to Appendix A in this document [PDF].