Friday, February 25, 2005

UK misses chance to defuse nanotox issue

Blogger's Note: You read the ETC Group's take on today's nanotech events in Britain. And now, for something completely different, here's the counterpoint from author, professor and dapper 007-ish Brit Richard Jones. -- Howard

By Richard Jones
Physics Professor, University of Sheffield,
Author of Soft Machines
and NanoBot Correspondent

JonesThe Minister of Science, Lord Sainsbury, used the occasion of the opening of an exhibition on nanotechnology at the Science Museum today to announce the Government's response to the Royal Society Report "Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties". I was present at the opening, having got my invitation on the strength of having done some fact checking for the museum, and for having let them have the use of a short film we'd made at Sheffield.

I'd actually debated with myself whether the event would even be worth the trek to London - the word I'd been hearing was that the Government was essentially going to accept the report in full. This would have been significant, in that it would have put the UK ahead of the rest of the world in regulating nanotechnology and studying its potential consequences in advance, but it would have made a fairly dull story. The Science Media Centre, which operates as some kind of rapid response unit to give a pro-science side to stories such as this, had rung me up to see if I was going to be around. They were saying that they weren't seeing a lot of interest from the media.

On the other hand, Jim Thomas from the ETC Group had put out a press release predicting that the response would fall short in the way of action; Jim was clearly going to do his best to make a story out of this.

So I turned up at 9 am at the back door of the Science Museum for the launch. A quick tour of the exhibit showed me that the museum had done a creditable job of showing off nanotechnology, albeit very much at the incremental end of the discipline. My invitation even included a swatch of fabric from Nano-Tex, inviting me to pour water over it. Its special properties, the invitation told me, were because it had been treated with nanosized molecules. I wondered what other sorts of molecules there are.

But serious business awaited - printed copies of the government response were available, and I could see ETC's Jim Thomas in a huddle with Greenpeace's Chief Scientist, Doug Parr, speed-reading the 26 page document and comparing notes. Time for me to get a copy and do the same.

One look at the Royal Society press release showed me that Jim's premonitions about the event were closer to the mark than mine. Headed "Government commits to regulating nanotechnologies, but will it deliver?" the release led with the disappointment of the RS panel's chair, Ann Dowling, that no new money was promised for research to underpin new regulation. I'll analyse the Government's response in more detail on Soft Machines, but it essentially consists of warm words and promises of more reviews and more committees. I'd reread the RS report on the train down, and I'd been reminded that it really did have some quite strong conclusions and some very specific recommendations. Again and again, these recommendations were simply evaded. A couple of examples suffice to give the flavour.

  • RS: "We recommend that Research Councils UK establish an Interdisciplinary Research Centre to research the toxicity of manufactured nanoparticles
  • Government ... Government accepts the need for better coordination of relevant nanotechnology research... There is a need to establish a forum ... Dept of Environment, Fisheries and Rural Affairs will chair a research coordination group...
  • RS: "We recommend that chemicals in the form of nanoparticles or nanotubes be treated as new substances under the existing Notification of New Substances (NONS) regulations...
  • Government: The Government accepts that a chemical in the form of nanoparticles may exhibit different properties ... chemicals will continue to be regulated under NONS ... the regulations do not require re-notification for different physical forms... it may be that additional tests may be required for a chemical in the form of a nanoparticle, but this will vary on a case-by-case basis.
The moment had arrived for the minister to take to the podium. Rapidly moving on from the ostensible purpose of the visit - to open the exhibition - we moved on to the main business. The government wants the UK to be a world leader in the technology, but also a model of best practise in regulation and dialogue ... the government welcomed the Royal Society's excellent report ... there'll be a review of current safety regulations ... a new cross government group will coordinate all aspects of research... results of a new program to facilitate public dialogue will shortly be announced.... Then it ended, so abruptly that people took a few moments to notice they were supposed to clap.

The first question from the floor came from Greenpeace's Doug Parr. "All you've announced is processes. Will you make a commitment to implement new regulation at the end of these processes?" The answer danced around, talking about the importance of the transparency of the processes. The minister did commit to change regulations if gaps are found, but qualified this by talking about the need to pin down very carefully whether gaps existed. And in the case of environmental releases, he thinks this is already covered by existing regulations.

ETC's Jim Thomas was next, cunningly slipping in two questions. "The RS rejected a moratorium on the grounds that we'd have quick action to amend the regulatory regime. Now we're faced with further reviews, what are you going to do about the existing consumer products that contain nano-ingredients?"

The minister responded firstly by talking about all the natural nanoparticles that we already were exposed to, then said society would grind to a complete halt if we stopped everything, then talked about the adequacy of existing guidelines and consumer regulations. Jim's second question concerned the absence of attention given in the response to longer term issues - how the technology might affect the poor, the disabled, the issues of control over technology. The minister gave this question short shrift, more or less saying that as we don't know how the technologies will be applied in the future, it was impossible to know what their social implications would be, and thus it would be pointless to study them.

The next question came from the reporter from "Research Fortnightly", a trade rag for scientists devoted to the pressing issue of where their next grant would come from. "Why was there no new money?" The new coordinating group will draw on existing research council and government department funds, the minister said, there've been big increases in research council budgets... " What if the research councils don't choose to spend their money in this way?" They will, it's all fascinating scientific stuff, he argued. There was a question from the Guardian reporter, but I didn't hear either the question or the response. Then the minister swept off.

In the scrum that followed, I could see Jim Thomas and his PR man very effectively chasing the journalists to give them his no doubt doom-ridden view. In a novel departure for me I had a press handler too; Lorna from the Sheffield University press office had come down, and did a great job of letting me lurk shyly in a corner while she fished out journalists for me to talk to. We'll see if anything I said was coherent enough or interesting enough to make it into their stories later.

I return probably more in agreement with ETC and Jim Thomas than I ever thought I would be. The UK government had its chance to lead the world in introducing sensible regulation and responsible dialogue about nanotechnology, but it hasn't taken it. For the cost of few million it could have defused the nanoparticle toxicity particle issue, but it's chosen to let it slide on, obscuring the many more interesting and serious issues that will arise as this technology develops. The Science Museum should have got someone else to open their exhibition.

NanoBot Backgrounder
UK sets up a fragmented nanopolicy


Anonymous said...

Hey Richard - i've never had a press 'handler' in my life - i think the person you were referring to was another journalist!

Worse than failing to 'defuse' the nanotoxicity issue, the UK government gave no channel to open up the bigger societal, ethical and socio-economic issues that the Royal society had at least acknowledged - eg. nanopatents and monopoly, human rights and surveillance, impacts on the poor and commodity markets etc. Also nanobiotechnology (dare i say "soft machines"..) was also absent. I suspect those two mistakes, more than any other in this response, will come back to bite them (and the emerging nanotech industry) most painfully over time.


Anonymous said...

Jim, I agree with you. (There, that didn't hurt as much as I thought it would.) The positive thing I take away is that there are growing numbers of people, from the worlds of academic science, from social science, from NGOs, and elsewhere who do think the bigger issues you refer to are important. Despite our different starting points we'll find some ways of thrashing those issues out, even if government is relatively indifferent to that enterprise.

As for soft machines, don't forget that there are two ways of implementing that program. There's the bionano route of reassembling the components of living organisms, but there's also the biomimetic route, of using biological design philosophies with synthetic materials. I think the second method has the better long term prospects, precisely because it does avoid some of the most problematic aspects of bio-nano. But your general point I agree with (apart from the bit about commodity markets) - the failure here to address anything other than the most short term of issues is very disappointing.