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Thinking big about small stuff


23 March 2007

The ethical concerns surrounding nanotechnology are to be the focus of a new academic journal, Nanoethics, launched in May this year by Germany-based publishers Springer. It will be the first journal dedicated to the subject - but are there any new discussions to be had? 

Contributors to NanoEthics' debut issue broadly agree that bioethics and computer ethics have already covered much of the relevant ground: privacy, safety, machine intelligence, and the public reaction to science. 

But, as Arie Rip, philosopher of science at the University of Twente, the Netherlands, points out, nanotech makes the prospect of microscopic robots, implanted chips and invisible materials more realistic. This adds a fresh urgency to ethical issues already considered by other fields, suggests Patrick Lin, research director of the Nanoethics Group, a think tank based in California. 

David Guston, director of the Center for nanotechnology in society at Arizona State University, US, hopes that public discussions about nanotechnology are already sophisticated enough to avoid hysterical speculation. 'People are chastened by recent experience of debates like GMO and mad cow disease,' he told Chemistry World, adding that research on US public opinion about nanotechnology suggests that 'people don't know a lot, but are positively disposed towards it'. 

Much of that may be due to the careful rhetoric and education programmes employed by those working in the field. Rob Sparrow, of Monash University, Australia, writes that while nanoscientists never miss an opportunity to shout about the revolutionary novelty of nanotech when commercial opportunities arise, they are equally adept at explaining that it has been all around us for centuries, and is thus familiar and needing little regulation. 

That isn't the view of Mark Greenwood, formerly a long-serving official in the US Environmental protection agency. His review of nanotech regulations for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, based at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, was published on 14 March. 'Nanotechnology is moving too quickly to leave oversight entirely to a limited set of already overburdened federal agencies,' he writes. Self-regulation within the industry might be the answer - but hastily-constructed rules that put the onus for safety testing on manufacturers could well be a barrier to small industries, he added. 

Once nanotechnology appears in our food and our bodies, Greenwood warned, 'we may get emotive reactions'. Pre-empting a backlash against nanotechnology now looks set to test ethicists, as well as regulators.

Richard Van Noorden

Also of interest

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