Friday, July 14, 2006

On UNESCO Ethics and Politics of Nanotechnology

UNESCO, The Ethics and Politics of Nanotechnology, 2006, 22 pp.
http://portal.unesco.org/shs/en/ev.php-URL_ID=9648&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

The introduction begins with hyperbole on the impacts of nano drawn unabashedly from press reports, such as: "nanotechnology could ... spell the end of our very existence as human beings" (my personal favorite).

The complaint that begins the discussion on UNESCO and Nanotechnology is drawn from biopiracy issues in biotechnology and the plot of The Constant Gardener. It calls for an anticipatory approach to ethical issues and capacity building to improve public engagement. However, both of these imperatives are not articulated well and there is no plan to incorporate them into the current decision making matrix, so it is still the red pill or the blue pill.

The report does suggest that the norms of equity, justice, and fairness be used in making decisions over nano-policy, but again there is very little guidance. There are multiple references to GMOs and to asbestos as rhetorical flourishes and fear tags.

They discuss a knowledge divide (p. 13) and warn "communication between the experts and elites of a nation and the poorer and less well educated has grown less common." Personally, I think this is less true of nanotechnology than it was for other earlier technologies. Ever since the US federal government got into the business of science during the two World Wars, they seemed to have learned the relevance, if not important, of public support and built a lot of outreach and participation into the National Nanotechnology Initiative (Program) and transferred that duty to the National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office which has been doing a good job with some room for improvement.

There is a very interesting Table on p. 14. It lists the top ten applications of nanotechnology and the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). While I am unsure the selected application are the top ten, the association of technological development against the MDGs is useful in considering some of the needs and concerns of developing countries in the nanoworld.

On p. 16, there is a great quote. "[T]he normal course of health and safety reporting produces so many conflicting, and often incomprehensible warnings and approvals that it will be difficult to effectively communicate the precise risks of nanoparticles." TRUE. This problem needs to be addressed and soon. I just delivered an address at the International Society for the Study of Argumentation two weeks ago in Amsterdam on Intuitive Toxicology. In addition, to the paper being well received there were many discussion about how to approach heuristics and biases the public uses to understand toxicological information and how this has been complication by the new media (such as the Internet) than both attenuates and amplifies the information and by post normal science and other variables. A lot more on this later.

There is an under-enlightened discussion of intellectual property issues (p. 18) followed by an opaque recommendation: "...encourage--and amongst national governments, to require--open access to publicly funded research results and materials" (ibid). How to incentivize research in this paradigm is left unresolved and specific legislative or assembly driven actions at the national or international level is unaddressed.

Next page, "...the public need to be involved earlier and more often, in order to avoid the kind of backlash that accompanied the introduction of GM foods." NOT BUYING IT. Personally, I am a bit tired of this tirade without a scenario for backlash being articulated. Nanotechnology is not one building, one industry, etc., hence backlash is problematic. I would enjoy someone taking the time to string this out and discuss boycotts as well so we can have an informed debate without fear markers.

They add that there has been excessive classification associated with the "WAR" on terrorism, and they may be right. Information on nanoscience classified for "nefarious weapons" is not refutable because it has that conspiratorial undeniability thing working for it. This also applied to the use of nanothings by terrorists when the logic behind this has been rebutted elsewhere: cheaper, easier, and potentially less apocalyptic possibilities.

The report ends with arguing "grey goo" and "posthumanism" (p. 20) are distractions (more on this later) and "[n]anotechonlogy is at a crossroads" which while rhetorically interesting but... WHY?

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