Friday, February 25, 2005

UK sets up a fragmented nanopolicy

Blogger's Note: British Science Minister Lord Sainsbury's long-sought reaction to a yearlong Royal Society study on environmental and societal implications of nanotechnology is to ... um ... request another study. Well, in fairness to his lordship (or whatever you're supposed to call him) every major report on nanotech and the environment released during the past four years has concluded that more study is needed. I've written ad nauseam on the Royal Society report here, here and even for the Wall Street Journal here. So, I'm adding other voices. Ladies, germs and mad scientists, I give you Jim Thomas of the ETC Group. Yes, that ETC Group -- the one that wants a moratorium on all nanotech research. Be polite. -- Howard

By Jim Thomas
ETC Group UK Program Manager
and NanoBot Correspondent

thomasHere's my quick impression having just got back: Firstly that the UK Government has wimped out - no specific regulatory proposals (although there will be regulation), no new money for research, no mention whatsoever of addressing societal issues. Nobody seemed very happy with it.

They (the UK govt) have set themselves up for a fragmented and confusing nanopolicy. Basically they have commissioned another review (granted, a more detailed one) of regulatory gaps to report by the end of the year. They have decided to fragment decisionmaking across nine existing advisory committees and various government departments with a new internal government body (Nano Issues Dialogue Group) to try to make sure all those departments talk to each other. They have upset the Royal Society by offering no new money for research into nano-risks and rejecting the idea of a centre of excellence for advice on nanorisks - so that research and advice on nanotoxicology will be fragmented too.

To top it all there is nary a whisper of how to address big societal questions. Lord Sainsbury explicitly said he didn't feel it was government's role to try to forecast or prepare for the societal, economic and ethical disruptions that nanotechnology will bring: "We don't know what the social implications will be, therefore I see little value in considering them".

More specifically he compared the position of nanotech today with the position of computing in 1947 when the prediction was that we would only need around 12 computers and couldn't have foreseen how transformative computing would be. He went on: "We don't even know a half or a quarter of what [nanotech] applications will be".

He's obviously a believer in the school of Nano's revolutionary impact but reckons society will just have to like it or lump it. I find this societal laissez faire astonishing and dangerous. Of course it is government's role to try to forecast what impact technologies will have - they are spending billions of taxpayers money on developing those technologies and good governance depends upon having some sort of assesment of what the future might look like and planning for it. Also in so doing he explicitly is ignoring the Royal Society's warning that the biggest issues to arise from nanotech are likely to be issues of who controls the technology and who benefits. There are seeds of trouble being planted here I think.

The slightly better news: There will be some sort of public dialogue on nanotech facilitated by government (but its fairly vague and will 'inform not define' policy). Also the government supports a two-year sort of moratorium on environmental remediation applications of nanoparticles and will work with industry to prevent or reduce environmental releases of manufactured nanoparticles.

Anyway, read it yourself here.

ETC will, of course, produce a fuller commentary soon.

Update: The conversation continues at Slashdot -- Howard

NanoBot Backgrounder
ETC Group Reacts
Britain balances science, economics, perception
WSJ is down with nano

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