Brussels, 19 October 2006
Will Nanosciences shape future society and how will citizens benefit from it? This was the question put to scientists, policy makers and stakeholders at a Nanocafé on 18 October in Brussels.
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of atoms and molecules at a 'nanoscale' - one nanometre is about a million times smaller than the diameter of a pinhead. At the nanoscale, materials can be 'tuned' to display properties that could be exploited to build faster, lighter, stronger and more efficient devices and systems, as well as new classes of materials. The technology is expected to affect every sphere of our lives including health-care, computers, consumer gadgets, energy, defence and food.
Opening the Nanocafé was Stephen Schaller, one of the partners in the EU funded Nanologue project. 'Nanotechnologies are shaping today's products more and more,' he said. 'There's not a day that goes by when we don't see a new product on the market which calls itself nano or has some nano features.' He referred to such recently manufactured products as the nanometer-silver cryptomorphic condom which is essentially an antiseptic foam spray - a condom-in-a-can, and a chocolate 'slim' shake containing nanoclusters which manufacturers claim carry nutrition directly into the cell.
But as the number of products with nano features increase, so do concerns as to the risks associated with such applications. Many of the questions raised regard the health risks given that little is known of the toxicity of these nano-applications, said Mr Schaller. There are also concerns regarding the potential harm should such technology be used for military purposes -already the majority of research on these technologies is being conducted by the military sector, claimed Mr Schaller. Finally, the emergence of new technologies could also potentially lead to a widening gap between those who can afford these applications to enhance their lives and those who cannot - a similar trend to the existing digital divide.
'The key question therefore is how to benefit from nanotechnologies while limiting these risks?' asked Mr Schaller. One suggestion by the European Commission is to take into account the ethical, health, environmental and regulatory considerations linked to nanotechnologies as early on as possible in the research and development (R&D) phase, and to encourage dialogue with the public. Mr Schaller said that the aim was to spark debate early on among all those concerned so as to avoid repeating the mistakes made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) where the public were reluctant to accept anything mildly related to GMOs.
This is where the Nanologue project comes in. Funded under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), it developed the Nanometer, a web-based tool to help researchers and product developers carry out brief societal assessments of nanotechnological applications prior to market release. Using the tool, the risks and benefits of individual nanotechnological applications are scrutinised according to seven ethical, societal and legal indicators including, social benefits, health and the environment, resource requirements, privacy and transparency. 'These types of questions are not normally asked at the R&D process,' explained Mr Schaller who suggested that the Nanometer could be used to pre-screen nanotechnology projects seeking public funding.
The project also developed a second tool which comprises three 'realistic' scenarios of how nanotechnologies could develop between now and 2015. The cases were developed by experts and are the outcome of variations in key drivers which are likely to influence how the technologies develop and are used in the future. Drivers include the legal and political framework, prices of raw materials, the speed of scientific progress in nanotechnologies and environmental pressures. 'This tool could be used by companies that produce nano-products to help them decide what measures to take in response to these scenarios,' suggested Mr Schaller. 'The tool could also be used for communication purposes with the wider public.'
Following Mr Schaller's presentation, participants were invited to share their views on the future development of the sector in Europe. Many participants highlighted the importance of differentiating between the bounded (encapsulated) and non-bounded (free) nanotechnologies applications so as to better assess the risks and benefits.
One participant, Malcolm Harbour, MEP and Vice-Chair of the European Parliament's scientific technology options assessment (STOA) highlighted the difficulty of regulating these applications given that many societal and ethical aspects have to be considered. With regard to the potential health risks associated with some nanotechnology applications, he asked whether existing classification systems could already provide a mechanism to classify nanoparticles and their toxicity. Concerns were also raised in this regard by participants from environmental groups who suggested that nanoparticles should be further considered within the framework of the EU chemical policy (REACH).
But according to John Ryan, Director of the Bio-Nanotechnology Interdisciplinary Research Centre (IRC) at Oxford University in the UK, the perceived risks and benefits of nanotechnologies are exaggerated, and are based on theoretical suppositions rather than practical experience. He called on the European Commission to invest more of its research spending on toxicology and putting in place viable toxicology tests. A Dutch scientist participating in the café agreed that the benefits and risks were over-stated, and underlined the need to better communicate and educate scientists, policy-makers and the general public. He also stressed that nanotechnology was not a revolution but an evolution in technology.
Renzo Tomellini, Head of the Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies at the European Commission said that a package of measures was currently in the pipeline to increase research and the provision of equipment in the area of toxicology across Europe. Other proposed measures include increased networking opportunities and the creation of a toxicology observatory. The Commission will also continue, he said, to fund activities which seek to increase dialogue between politicians, industry and the public.
The Nanocafé was organised by STOA in association with the European Science Foundation, COST and Nanoscience Europe.