Brussels, 01 Aug 2003
While some in the research community believe that nanotechnology will be the key technology for the 21st century, a discussion on the subject, involving both policymakers and society has yet to take place. A new UK report represents one of the first steps towards a public debate. It addresses both the hype surrounding nanotechnology and the concerns that many have regarding the impact of the science.
'Its extreme supporters claim that nanotechnology can rebuild the human body from within and effectively abolish death, while its enemies fear instead, it could do away with life, by turning the surface of the Earth into an inhabitable grey mess,' states the report, by way of introduction. 'The truth probably lies somewhere between these extremes,' it adds.
The report, 'The social and economic challenges of nanotechnology', has been prepared by the UK's economic and social research council, and brings together three academics from the social science and natural science disciplines.
The report makes clear the difference between current nanotechnology research and applications, those which may be possible in the medium term, and those which may emerge in the long term. Current applications are predominantly limited to advances in well-established areas of applied science, such as material science and colloid technology. Medium term applications are likely to focus on overcoming barriers to technological progress, while long term applications are more difficult to predict, and are the focus of most concerns. 'This debate anticipates a degree of control over matter on the nanoscale that permits fabrication from a molecular level of virtually any material or structure,' states the report.
Three areas are highlighted as central to the debate on nanotechnology:
- the governance of technological change;
- social learning and the evaluation of risk and opportunity under uncertainty;
- the role of new technology in ameliorating or accentuating inequity and economic divides.
The report writers acknowledge that nanotechnology is 'attracting the attention of governments, industry, research organisations and individuals across the world' and aim to stimulate debate with the paper's publication.
In recognition of the importance and potential of nanotechnology, the European Commission has allocated 1.3 billion euro to research in this field under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). To see the full report, please visit: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/esrccontent/downlo addocs/nanotechnology.pdf