Nanoethics: Big Ethical Issues with Small Technology

February 18, 2010

Biotechnology, and nanotechnology in particular, "raises moral questions that are not simply difficult in the familiar sense but are of an altogether different kind". So quotes, approvingly, Donal O'Mathuna in the conclusion of a chapter entitled "Precaution: More Forwards Slowly".

As a scientist working in the general field of nanotechnology, I have often been asked to speak on the ethical issues raised by nano. So I was excited to find a book devoted to the subject written by a professional ethicist.

It is easy to list the issues associated with the potential toxicity associated with nanomaterials. Carbon nanotubes, for example, have a high aspect ratio not dissimilar to asbestos particles, and so one should be alert to potential dangers of something akin to asbestosis. It should be remembered that asbestos was in use for many years before it was banned. Warnings of the potential dangers of asbestos were recorded in 1934, yet it was not banned throughout the European Union until 1999.

Such historical precedents can be extensively documented. But any new substance, whether or not it is nano, must be treated with extreme caution. That is why we have the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations in the UK, and why all new drugs are subject to comprehensive testing. I would add that, in my observation, the scientists I know who are working with new nanomaterials observe the highest standards of caution and safety.

So there may be technical issues that are specific to certain classes of nanomaterials, but are there any uniquely nanoethical issues?

Technological advances may also bring a risk or, if they are expensive enough, a near certainty of increasing the divide between the rich and the poor. Those who have nanotechnology can use it to become even healthier and wealthier, potentially at the expense of those who cannot afford it. Once again, this is an important issue, and it may be that it will manifest itself in new ways with nanotechnology - as it already has with genetic modification.

But what are the moral issues that are specific to nano? Nanoethics devotes chapters to these and other ethical issues, but what are the questions that are of an altogether different kind?

It used to be said that the prefix nano comes from a Greek word meaning "Please give me a grant". I now wonder if there is a Greek homophone meaning "Please read my book". Rather like Nanovision by Colin Milburn, which I reviewed for Times Higher Education in 2008, Nanoethics seems to draw its information more from nanofiction than from nanofact. There is a legitimate role for science fiction in allowing a safe gedankenexperiment to explore the ethical and social consequences of technological or pathological scenarios. In just such a way P. D. James' novel The Children of Men considers how we might live if there were to be no more children in the human race. But Nanoethics uses fiction like a drunken man uses a lamp post: for support rather than illumination.

There are six references in the book to the movie Fantastic Voyage, and nine to the novel Prey by Michael Crichton. Eric Drexler, who did much to raise public awareness of nanotechnology but did not himself undertake experimental or theoretical research, is mentioned 18 times, compared with seven times each for two Nobel laureates: Richard Feynman, who many look to as the inspirer of modern nanotechnology, and Richard Smalley, who contributed to the discovery of fullerene molecules (the so-called Bucky balls). Bucky balls are mentioned 15 times, but this is dwarfed by references to nanobots. These numbers are based on page counts in the index, and may be underestimates, but they make the point. Vast areas of actual achievement in nanotechnology get no mention at all. It seems the author is more at home reading what novelists say about nanotechnology than getting to grips with the primary (or even the secondary) scientific literature.

This is a pity, because the underlying ethical approach of the book seems to be sound and is certainly one I warm to. But if you are going to write about nanoethics, you first must get to know what has actually been achieved in nanotechnology, not what visionaries such as Drexler or novelists such as Crichton think may happen in their wildest dreams. I am still left wondering about what the distinctive ethical issues of nanotechnology may be.

Nanoethics: Big Ethical Issues with Small Technology.

By Donal P. O'Mathuna. Continuum. 248pp, £45.00 and £12.99. ISBN 9781847063946 and 63953. Published 15 October 2009

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