Communication and risk assessment are keys to unleashing nano-potential

October 23, 2006

Brussels, 20 October 2006

'Science and politics do not always dance together easily,' said Dutch MEP Dorette Corbey, speaking on the first day of the European Forum on Nanosciences in Brussels on 19 October.

When the science in question has evoked some controversy, politicians and scientists can be even less in step. But both were present at the forum, and dancing to the same tune as they examined the potential of nanoscience and nanotechnology, raising awareness of this relatively young field, and risk and risk perception.

Both scientists and politicians are dependent upon one another, and it therefore makes sense for them to work together and agree upon a common approach to nanoscience. Scientists, and particularly those in the public sector, require funding, as well as appropriate regulations, if any are put in place; governments are responsible for ensuring that their citizens are not exposed to any harm, and that opportunities to climb up the competitiveness ladder are not missed.

If the full potential of nanoscience is to be exploited however, public concerns must be taken into account, whether or not they are believed to be justified. If Europe does not address problems early on, they will come back later with more force, said Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik. 'We must patiently explain [...]. Hiding things will bring even bigger problems in the future,' he added.

This view contrasts somewhat with that of Giovanni Carrada, a science journalist. One of the lessons learned from the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) affair was that more technical information is not the answer. 'You can never turn the general public into experts,' he told the conference.

Mr Carrada listed other lessons learned from GMOs as: the source rather than the content of information will either win or lose the public's trust; uncertainties must be acknowledged; citizens should be involved upstream; technologies should not be regarded as machines.

A number of speakers agreed on the importance of involving the general public in nanoscience from the beginning. 'Initial perceptions are very difficult to change. They frame the issue for a very long time,' said Mr Carrada. What makes this difficult with nanoscience, as highlighted from Donald Bruce of the Church of Scotland, is that the concept is still quite vague, and is therefore not attracting much interest from society. Indeed, a Eurobarometer on nanotechnology showed a very low awareness of the subject. Instead, Mr Bruce suggested communication strategies focusing on the many areas where nanoscience is developing - nanomedicine and nanotechnology for the environment, for example.

While there are still risks to be assessed in these two areas, the potential for improving quality of life is enormous. In healthcare for example, nanoscience can improve diagnosis, the monitoring of conditions, and treatment with the aid of nanosized tools.

Ruth Duncan is a Professor of Cell Biology and Drug Delivery at the Welsh School of Pharmacy, Cardiff University, UK, and Director of the Centre for Polymer Therapeutics. She gave an introduction to what could be achieved in nanomedicine, but then referred to some of the challenges that must be addressed first. 'We must give realistic timelines,' she said.

Of course the new technology must be safe. In addition, researchers are under immense pressure to find effective inexpensive materials. When new materials or technologies are developed, this knowledge must be translated into a product, and exploited on the marketplace. Professor Duncan referred to a number of products that have been developed in Europe but exploited in the US. 'We don't want to be buying technologies back later through licensing agreements. This is far too expensive,' she said. Part of the solution may be helping scientists to understand the needs of the manufacturing sector, she suggested.

Fragmented research efforts are also standing in the way of nanomedicine, according to Professor Duncan. She appealed for pan-European efforts and pan-European standards. More integration is also needed between disciplines, she said, calling for more inter-disciplinary conferences bringing scientists from traditionally separate disciplines together, and more degree courses on, for example, nanomedicine.

The interdisciplinary approach is also important at European level, she stressed. 'My concern was that in earlier framework programmes, nano was in one box and health in another. We need an integrated approach,' said Professor Duncan. She is confident that the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) provides this integrated approach.

Finally, Professor Duncan returned to the subject of communication. Scientists need to engage with the public, and interact with politicians. She lamented the fact that few MEPs attended the Forum on Nanosciences. Their absence was partly due to their heavy schedules, but partly to nano-experts not 'speaking the right language', she said.

As debates in the media pick up speed over the risk of nanoscience on the one hand, and its potential on the other, politicians are however taking an interest. On 28 November MEPs adopted an own initiative report welcoming a Commission action plan on a safe, integrated and responsible strategy for nanosciences and nanotechnologies for the period 2005 to 2009. The report by Czech MEP Miloslav Ransdorf stresses the need to increase public investment in research as world-class infrastructure is needed if the EU is to remain competitive in nanoscience.

The report also called upon the EU to clarify the legal and business environment for new nanotechnologies, and to create a nanoscience patent monitoring system governed by the European Patent Office.

Further information on the European Forum on Nanosciences

Further information on nanoscience and nanotechnology

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