Is nanotechnology rushing into a repeat of the biotechnology backlash?

Unaccompanied by regulatory oversight or public debate, the nanotechnological revolution has begun.

Several hundred consumer products now include engineered nanoparticles. Global sales of nanoproducts were worth US$32 billion last year and are forecast to grow to US$1 trillion by 2011. But if you’ve failed to notice that the science of the small has left the lab, you’re not alone. Nanotechnology is being commercialised outside of general public awareness or debate, without any serious attempt to involve the community in decision making about its introduction, and in the absence of regulatory oversight to protect workers, the public and the environment from nanotechnology’s risks.

The Australian Federal Government continues to maintain a frustrating silence on its nanotechnology policy development. Industry Minister Macfarlane has failed to disclose if and when he intends to make public the long-awaited report from the National Nanotechnology Strategy Taskforce that was completed in June. There appears to be little chance that the Minister has any intention of seeking broad public input to the report as the Government finalises its 20-30 year National Nanotechnology Strategy in the coming months. The Federal Government’s failure to involve the community in decision making around the introduction of this transformative new technology, the lack of transparency surrounding its own process of nanotechnology policy development, and its failure to regulate to protect the public interest, begs the question: is nanotechnology rushing headlong into a repeat of the backlash that greeted genetically engineered foods?

Nanotechnology is a powerful new technology for taking apart and reconstructing nature at the atomic and molecular level. Several hundred commercially available products now contain engineered nanomaterials — including transparent sunscreens, light-diffracting cosmetics, penetration enhanced moisturisers, stain and odour repellent fabrics, dirt repellent coatings, scratch-proof sunglasses, long lasting paints and furniture varnishes, industrial catalysts, fuel cells, burn and wound dressings, and even some food products.

Nanotechnology products expected within the next ten years include sophisticated nanodevices, synthetic organs and smart drugs for medicine, atomically engineered (nanobiotechnology) products for agriculture, industry, environmental remediation and military use, personalised interactive “smart” foods that can change colour, flavour and nutritional content on demand or in response to a consumer’s dietary needs, “smart” manufacturing and packaging, vastly more efficient solar cells, high performance electronics and tools for ubiquitous surveillance in agricultural, civil and military contexts.

The US National Science Foundation suggests that nanoscale science will act as a platform technology, enabling technological convergence across a wide range of existing scientific and techno-scientific fields. The APEC Centre for Technology Foresight observes that major breakthroughs associated with the emergence of these convergent technologies will result in rapid technological change, which will inevitably be associated with large-scale social upheaval. “If nanotechnology is going to revolutionise manufacturing, health care, energy supply, communications and probably defence, then it will transform labour and the workplace, the medical system, the transportation and power infrastructures and the military. None of these latter will be changed without significant social disruption”.

Concerns about nanotechnology’s impacts are wide-ranging. The United Kingdom’s Royal Society has warned that engineered nanoparticles present increased toxicity risks for human health and the environment. Nanobiotechnology’s engineering of living and non-living materials at the atomic scale poses serious ethical challenges that have been largely ignored to date. The United States National Science Foundation’s efforts to use convergent technologies to “enhance” human performance beyond our species typical boundaries will redefine even what it means to be human. A future nano divide between rich and poor nations of the world seems likely to further exacerbate existing economic inequities and create new ones. Issues of corporate control and ownership of nanotechnology will become all-important should nanotechnology become the strategic platform for key industry sectors in the immediate future.

Addressing these concerns, many of which relate to matters far broader than issues of scientific risk, will be critical to public confidence in the Government’s capacity to manage nanotechnology to meet public priorities and aspirations. However, so far the Government has failed to meet even the most immediate need to ensure that engineered nanoparticles do not present unacceptable toxicity risks for human health and the environment. There is still no regulation in place to protect the health of workers, the public or the environment from nanotechnology’s risks, no requirement for product manufacturers to conduct new safety tests of engineered nano-ingredients, and no requirement to identify on product labels the presence of engineered nanomaterials.

For the Government to demonstrate its capacity — and commitment — to manage nanotechnology in the public interest, and thereby avoid a similar backlash to that which greeted genetically engineered foods, there are three key steps that it must take as a matter of urgency.

  • Firstly, the Government must demonstrate a greater commitment to protecting public health and environmental safety than to protecting the interests of the emerging nanotechnology industry. It must move quickly to establish a national, comprehensive nanotechnology regulatory framework managed by a single integrated body. The regulatory framework must address nanotoxicity issues as well as the broader social and ethical issues related to the research, manufacture, consumption and release into the environment of nanotechnological products. Products containing engineered nanomaterials should not be made commercially available or released into the environment until this framework is established.
  • Secondly, the Government must provide far greater levels of transparency and public accessibility in the development of its National Nanotechnology Strategy. The Strategy’s development should be informed by a robust and broadly accessible public participation programme. This programme should include a wide range of participatory processes, including those based on the deliberative design model, to enable direct input from the general public into new technology assessment and determination of priorities and principles for the National Nanotechnology Strategy.
  • Thirdly, the Government must demonstrate its commitment to funding public interest science. There should be a dedicated programme of research examining nanotechnology’s implications for public and environmental health, ethical implications, social and economic impacts.

Failure to take seriously the need to establish genuine public participation processes in nanotechnology policy development, and failure to ensure that nanotechnology’s risks are managed to safeguard public safety, will inevitably result in a public backlash against nanotechnology. As visiting US academic Professor Bruce Bimber from the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California warned recently: We have to pay attention to nanotechnology before it hits us on the head.

The next year will be critical in determining whether the Australian government will put public interest science first in its management of nanotechnology, or whether it will continue to rush headlong into provoking the sort of backlash that greeted genetically engineered foods.