Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Kiwi Economics

Like a tornado touching down indiscriminately, the nanotech policy debates are now shuffling political trailer parks in New Zealand. The country's Bioethics Council is warning that nanotech could potentially become as polarizing to society as the genetically modified foods controversies. The council called on scientists to "carefully watch international research on its ethical, spiritual and cultural implications," according to a report in the Star-Times of New Zealand. One important thing to note here is that the Bioethics Council concerned itself purely with the impact public perception can have on formation of nanotechnology policy. The implication, of course, is that while public fear may be completely divorced from scientific fact, the fear is no less a potent factor in shaping nanotech regulations and the ability of businesses to sell their products. New Zealand's fledgling nanotechnology industry should pay attention to this debate. Its ability to do businesses could someday be limited by the government. The nano industry could rightly point out that there is no current scientific proof or even suspicion that its products are harmful, but when facts collide with hysteria, guess which usually emerges unscathed? The New Zealand policy debate appears to be textbook, with each side talking slightly past each other: The Greens say it's up to the science community to prove it isn't harmful, scientists say there's an enormous potential for good so leave us alone to develop it, while the politicians calculate which side will earn them the most votes. Meanwhile, across the Pacific, Glennda Chui of the San Jose Mercury News filed a report updating the nanotech policy issue in the United States, along with a rundown of how nanotech devices work. Here, as in New Zealand, environmental activists warn of a "regulatory vacuum," while admitting that there have been no scientific studies to back any claim that nanomaterials harm anything. Right now, at least in the United States, reason is winning the day and calls for a moratorium are left on the margins. But regulatory winds can change just as easily as political. As I've noted before, take a look at how the Precautionary Principle is slowly winding its way from the margins to the center. "Do no harm" is a wise creed for every profession, but political expediency could someday produce government mandates to "do nothing." It can happen. It already has. Coming soon in Small Times: The nanotech/policy typhoon makes landfall in Switzerland. Discuss

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