Getting society ready for nanotechnology

March 11, 2003

Brussels, 10 Mar 2003

In a recently published paper on science and ethics in nanotechnology, Canadian researchers call for more discussion on the impacts of this radical new technology.

Nanotechnology is rapidly emerging as a science with huge potential in a range of areas, including materials science, electronics and medicine. But Canadian researchers have issued a challenge to the scientific community and policymakers. Despite all the investment in nanotechnology, there has not been enough serious, published research into the ethical, legal and social implications of the field, they claim.

The research team from the University of Toronto's Joint Centre for Bioethics say that, although still in its infancy, with most applications decades away, the backlash against this new technology is already gathering momentum. These findings have been summarised in a recently published report, 'Mind the gap: science and ethics in nanotechnology' (see Institute of Physics journal, Nanotechnology).

"It is expected that a technology which promises to make massive changes in our lives would be viewed with suspicion and, perhaps outright fear," said Dr. Peter Singer, one of the authors of the report. He calls for more dialogue about the benefits and risks of this new technology to tackle potential opposition, as encountered by genetically modified crops.

"There is danger of derailing nanotechnology if the study of ethical, legal and social implications does not catch up with the speed of scientific development," the report says. Topics put forward for discussion include: How will personal privacy be protected in an age of nano-scale cameras and tracking devices? Who will benefit most from advances in this technology? What will be the environmental impacts of nano-materials? What are the implications of implanting nano-scale machines or materials inside humans?

Nanotech's big spenders

"Over the past few years, expenditure on research and development in nanotechnology has increased dramatically," the report states. Japanese R&D spending on this technology has increased more than six-fold; from around €110 million in 1997 to €687 million in 2002. In Western Europe, it has more than doubled in the past five years – from around €115 million in 1997 to between €320-366 million in 2002. The same trend has been witnessed in the USA during this period (from some €396 million to €553 million). Other countries, such as South Korea, Australia, Taiwan and China, have all started new nanotechnology programmes in the same period.

The European Union has also set aside considerable funding for nanotechnologies in its Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) for research, which runs from 2002 to 2006. Some €1.3 billion has been earmarked for FP6's third thematic priority area, 'nanotechnology and nanosciences, knowledge-based multifunctional materials and new production processes and devices'. Acknowledging the importance of ethics in research, the EU asks applicants to specifically address the ethical considerations of their proposed project in order to qualify for co-financing under FP6.


More information on this subject:

Institute of Physics journal, Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology background briefing

Nanotechnology in FP6

Ethics in science and society

DG Research ndex_en.html

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