One term you hear quite often in discussion about the potential risks of nanotechnology is 'precautionary principle'. This moral and political principle, as commonly defined, states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action. The principle aims to provide guidance for protecting public health and the environment in the face of uncertain risks, stating that the absence of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason to postpone measures where there is a risk of serious or irreversible harm to public health or the environment. In 2001, an expert panel commissioned by the European Environment Agency (EEA) published a report, Late Lessons from Early Warnings: The Precautionary Principle 1896-2000, which explored 14 case studies, all of which demonstrated how not heeding early warnings had led to a failure to protect human health and the environment. It looked at controversial topics such as asbestos, Mad Cow Disease, growth hormones, PCBs and radiation - all of which demonstrated how not heeding early warnings had led to a failure to protect human health and the environment. The expert group that compiled the EEA report identified 12 'late lessons' on how to avoid past mistakes as new technologies are developed. These lessons bear an uncanny resemblance to many of the concerns now being raised about various forms of nanotechnology.
Consider this: in fields like nanosciences and nanotechnology the knowledge doubles in as little as five years, making a student's education obsolete even before graduation. But while the knowledge is growing exponentially, the established mechanism of getting this knowledge into the public domain has not changed much. This begs the question if the traditional scientific paper publishing model is still adequate and able to cope with the fast pace of how things develop in the scientific world. It can take up to two years from the time a scientific study is conducted to the actual publication of its findings in a paper in a peer-reviewed journal. By then, the underlying research might already be out of date.
Oscar Pistorius - also known as 'Blade Runner' - is a double leg amputee who is using specially developed artificial legs to compete in races. A world record holder in the 100, 200 and 400 meters Paralympic events, Pistorius was denied by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) his application to participate in the 2008 Summer Olympics. The IAAF argued that his prosthetic racing legs give him a clear competitive advantage. On May 16, the IAAF's decision was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, allowing Pistorius to participate in the Olympics if he could make the minimum qualifying time. This episode drives home the monumental issues our society will be facing in the not too distant future thanks to our increasing technological ability to enhance the human body. Terms like 'health', 'disease', 'therapy' and 'medicine' will have to be radically redefined.
Most people in the world know exactly how long a kilometer is, how large a liter is, how much a kilogram weighs, and how warm 25C is. That's because almost all countries in the world have adopted a standard called the metric system - since the 1960s the International System of Units has been the internationally recognized standard system for measurements (only three countries have not adopted this standard: Liberia, Myanmar, and the United States - the latter maybe because the metric system was invented by the French...). The need for standardization also exists in various fields of nanotechnology in order to support commercialization and market development, provide a basis for procurement, and support appropriate legislation/regulation. When it comes to nanotechnology, numerous standard setting organizations around the world are active in defining nanotechnology standards, although no one standard has achieved dominance yet.
The European Union currently spends about 740 million Euros (roughly $1.2 billion) annually in public funding on nanotechnology research. This is almost on par with the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) budget of $1.28 billion (2007). Almost 40% of public EU nanotechnology funding takes place in Germany and it is estimated that about half of the European companies active in nanotechnology are based in Germany, making the country the clear nanotechnology leader in Europe. Germany's strengths include a well structured research and development infrastructure and a high level of research in the various subfields of nanotechnology. The industrial base for utilizing the results of this research is also in place. About 700 companies are currently involved in the development, application, and sales and marketing of nanotechnological products. What sets public nanotechnology policy in Germany and other European countries apart from the U.S. is a more deliberate attempt to create, and evolve over time, an integrated approach in the development of nanotechnology research, trying to link sustainability questions and technology development.
The food industry is excited about the potential of nanotechnology. Food companies are very much involved in exploring and implementing nanotechnology applications in food processing, packaging and even growing - but you don't hear about it anymore. At least not from the companies.
Large industrial food companies, no stranger to big and expensive media campaigns, have buried the subject of nanotechnology in their public relations graveyard. Take Kraft Foods for example. While it took the industry's nanotechnology lead when it established the Nanotek Consortium in 2000, it has since pulled back completely on the PR front. The Nanotek Consortium even was renamed the 'Interdisciplinary Network of Emerging Science and Technologies' (INEST), is now sponsored by Altria, and its single webpage makes no mention of food at all. Doing our regular check on the websites of large food companies we again found not a single reference to 'nanotechnology' or even 'nano'. The same is true for large food industry associations such as the Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association (GMA/FPA), which represents the world's leading food, beverage and consumer products companies. Faced with a complete nanotechnology communications blackout from the manufacturers, it is left to activist groups like Friends of the Earth to frame the discussion. These groups are trying to figure out what the food industry is up to and if there might be any risks involved that we should know about.
An Interagency Working Group on Manufacturing Research and Development established by the National Science and Technology Council has identified three technology areas as key research and development priorities for future manufacturing: Manufacturing for Hydrogen Technologies; Nanomanufacturing; and Intelligent and Integrated Manufacturing. The Working Group summarized their findings in a new report titled 'Manufacturing the Future.' Although this report is specific to the U.S., most of its general conclusions and recommendations apply to most other industrialized nations and their industrial nanotechnology efforts as well. Nanotechnology is viewed throughout the world as a critical driver of future economic growth and as a means to addressing some of humanity's most vexing challenges. Because of its broad range of prospective uses, nanotechnology has the potential to impact virtually every industry, from aerospace and energy to healthcare and agriculture. Nanomanufacturing integrates science and engineering knowledge and develops new processes and systems to assure quality nanomaterials, to control the assembly of molecular-scale elements, and to predictably incorporate nanoscale elements into nano-, micro-, and macroscale products utilizing new design methods and tools. Efforts in this area are directed toward enabling the mass production of reliable and affordable nanoscale materials, structures, devices, and systems. Nanomanufacturing includes the integration of ultra-miniaturized top-down processes and evolving bottom-up or self-assembly processes.
Notwithstanding the mixed news (to put it mildly) that individual investors have been getting from their nanotechnology stock portfolios, industry as a whole is pressing ahead with incorporating nanotechnologies in their products and processes. Unlike many other areas of science, nanosciences are capable of influencing a wide sweep of industrial and medical processes, from cleaner energy applications, to smart materials and revolutionary medical applications. It is increasingly difficult to know which products use nanotechnology or incorporate nanomaterials; nanotechnology consumer product directories give an idea where nanomaterials are used but are increasingly useless in helping to understand the full extent of nanotechnologies penetrating industrial manufacturing processes. Some consumer companies embrace 'nano' wholeheartedly and advertise their 'revolutionary' face creams, tennis rackets and car waxes; some, after increased scrutiny, have become very quiet about their nanotechnology activities (especially the large cosmetics and food companies); and some even change their company name to something that doesn't include 'nano' ('cleantech' or 'greentech' has become the new nanotech). Combine this technological shift that is taking place in industries across the board with the still existing lack of conclusive answers about the toxicity of nanomaterials, and you get a worrisome mix of industry pushing ahead unconstrained, a regulatory environment where key constituencies are ill prepared and underfunded to address the issues with the speed required, and public opinion that covers the whole range from activists calling for a complete moratorium on all things nano to snake-oil salesmen who promise nanotechnology stock tips that will make you a gazillionaire. Oh, and apparently now you can also add to this mix certain religious types in the U.S. who find nanotechnology is morally not acceptable.