Tuesday, March 1, 2005




There are very few documents addressing truly international concerns about applied nanoscience and nanotechnology. I found this document mostly useful for its participant list. In addition, some of the material could easily find its ways into focus groups and in-depth interviews in our work within societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology (SEIN). [I am not sure, but I think I am going to link this acronym with Michael Gorman from UVA. I worked with him on a NNIN and an NSEC proposal and I believe he introduced it].

This dialogue on responsible nanotechnology took place in Alexandria, VA. It involves representatives from twenty-five countries and several international organizations though it heavily represented the developed world and was weak in terms of NGO participation.

Some important general observations included a call for international coordination, nanotechnology should not be viewed as a single technology, no country was considering a moratorium, transparent regulatory efforts should enable adaptive capacity and encourage flexibility, the widening knowledge gap between developing and developed countries must be reduced,

Breakout groups reached additional sets of observations. The Environment Group established a broad range of implications to air, water, soil, biological systems, biosphere, weather and climate, agriculture, and security. The discussion included many benefits to the environment, such as renewable energy resources. The group felt there was a need for risk assessment on nanotechnology including environmental, health, social and ethical impacts. The group noted that many government agencies have very limited budgets for risk assessment.

The Human Health and Safety Group seemed to focus on medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and worker and consumer exposure. One of the first issues discussed was on nomenclature. Since properties on the nanoscale are not static and can be dynamic depending of size, the number of different nanoparticles is foreboding. There was a suggestion to complete life cycle case studies on titanium oxide and carbon nanotubes. Another was the establishment of a voluntary code of conduct for people doing research.

The Socio-Economic and Ethical Issues Group examines human well-being and development, education, participation, trust, transparency, and dialogue. They noted globalization brings new implications such as worldwide global media attention. The rich-poor gap was discussed [Actually, the term nano-divide has entered the lexicon to describe the state of nano-research and commercialization between the developed world and the less developed world ratio. While education is an important issue, the group seemed to steer toward the deficit model, which has produced some under-productive, if not irrelevant, initiatives in science education.

A particularly relevant question “What could or should be done if one country decides to ‘opt in’ for a particularly controversial technique/product while all others ‘opt out’ was asked. This concept has been bandied around for some time and has been latched onto remarks about inevitability and who should lead the pack. Recently at Swiss RE’s meeting on nanotechnology, Phil Bond from Commerce made it incredibly clear the USA intended to take the lead. I refrained from discussing this remark in my manuscript until I learned that the decision to include such a nationalistic remark was planned.

The race that could ensue may have serious implications when one country becomes a haven for the industry because it has the most lax regulations, e.g., worker safety. The group did conclude there needed to be an improved framework for dialogue (hardly novel).

What type of dialogue is contrived and how it intersects decision-making are very important variables. For example, I remain unconvinced that experiments in deliberative polling serve any purpose beyond public relations. Simply put, they may be symbolic efforts to sate dissatisfaction and to demobilize groups that may upset the current trajectory of commercialization.

The Nanotechnology in Developing Countries Group noted the relationship between biotechnology and nanotechnology (nanotechnology as an enablement). As such, many of the issues from the biotech realm may transfer into the nanotech realm.

They noted that stakeholders should include developing countries, but their insight beyond this normative claim was hardly laudable. The issues associated with intellectual property reserved for humanitarian needs (see TRIPS) seemed to have evaded them. The special needs of developing countries, esp. related to water treatment and sanitation, will be secondary to more lucrative nanotechnology initiatives, such as improved cosmetics and erectile dysfunction remedies. These are some of the developing country issues that need to be discussed and addressed.

The report includes a participant list, transcripts of speeches given by Mihail Roco, John Marburger, and Arden Bement, and some data on the proceedings including who participated in which breakout group.


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