Thursday, December 16, 2004

2005 the year of nano regulation?

Cited by the journal Science as one of the top scientific areas to watch in 2005:

"Nanotechnology regulation: Regulators across a broad spectrum of government agencies are likely to increase their focus on the health and environmental risks posed by nano products." More here.

NanoBot Backgrounder
'All we have is speculation on toxicity'
Regulate this!
Creating a monster
This nebulous 'nano'
ETC Group Reacts
Britain balances science, economics, perception


Camilo said...

You are knowledgeable about this, so I have a question: There are not enough studies about the effects and reach of nanotechnology. What are they going to regulate?
Within this political climate, very restrictive and with government presence everywhere, and the mainstream idea of nanotechnology being akin to that of chemistry, surely this will slow the development of the Drexlerian nano?

Or would it simply shut development to other countries - with more permissive and daring attitudes toward discovery?

Howard Lovy said...

An excellent question, since it reaches right to the top of this Tower of Nano Babel we're building. First of all, "Drexlerian nano" (and I know that Eric Drexler does not like his name "ian"-ized because it makes the debate too much about him) is not being funded by the U.S. government, does not deal as yet with any of the materials that could fall under new regulation. Most proponents of molecular manufacturing look at this debate over nanoparticle toxicity with, at most, amusement and curiosity but believe it has little to do with them.

The nanoscale particles in your sunscreen and cosmetics (there really is very little else in actual products now) are products of the chemical industry that has renamed itself "nanotechnology." But it is little more than Dow downsized.

I've argued with molecular manufacturing proponents that they should care about this debate over toxicity because that is the "nano" that's in the news, thus their way back into the popular imagination. Engage in the world as it exists today, I've argued, and then while you're at it explain why pants, tennis rackets and sunscreen have very little to do with the molecular manufacturing that they're working on.

However, even within the world of crude nanoscale materials, the only serious attempts at regulation are likely to come from Europe and not the United States. Europe has had some pretty horrible experiences with the leaders of science and government lying to them and are justifiably suspicious of anything they're told about the safety of new technologies.

But, inevitably, when the rhetoric dies down and would-be regulators take a look at what exactly is on the market, despite the hype, they find that there is really nothing new there yet. The nanoscale versions of already-regulated chemicals do, indeed, fall under existing laws, and those that do not are already being scrutinized.

When the Royal Society in Britain finished its yearlong study on nanoparticle toxicity and regulation, it discovered what everybody else has over the past few years of nanohype: there is nothing new to regulate yet, but we should all keep our eyes on these new chemicals.

Will this slow down "Drexlerian" nanotech? Well, that depends on what the "Drexlerians" want to do. Will they engage in the political and public process or will they continue to lick their wounds while remaining completely oblivious to the relevant opportunities that surround them.