Nanotechnology: Risk, Ethics and Law

Nanotechnology: Risk, Ethics & Law 

Geoffrey Hunt and Michael Mehta (eds)

Earth Scan (2007)

ISBN 1-84407-358-0

RRP: £34.95 

Described as the first global overview of the state of nanotech and society in Europe, the USA, Japan and Canada, “Nanotechnology: Risk, Ethics and Law” is a cross disciplinary collection of essays in the Earthscan “Science in Society” series. Edited by Geoffrey Hunt, Professor of Ethics at the University of Surrey and Professional Fellow of the Institute of Nanotechnology and Michael Mehta, Professor of Sociology at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, the book boosts contributions from respected figures such as Roland Clift, K. Eric Drexler and Arpad Pusztai.  

The book seeks to address two key issues. Firstly, how nanotechnology has been embraced by governments in Europe, Japan, the US and Canada and secondly, the establishing of a platform for the reader to conceptualise the multifaceted nature of nanotechnology by identifying the gaps in the collective understanding of how nanotechnology is shaping the landscape of the 21st century.  

The book consists of six parts that address some of the main themes concerning the nano conversation. The first part introduces the whole concept of nanotechnology. Hunt and Mehta’s introduction is a helpful and lucid preface to the history and development of nano, its social implications and the ethical issues that need to be carefully considered in its future development and implementation. This helpfully leads into Kristen Kulinowski’s essay, which identifies the similar trajectory of ‘wow’ to ‘yuck’ factor that nanotechnology could possibly take in comparison to biotechnology. Kulinowski argues successfully that with sound technical data concerning health and social factors, coupled with a robust commitment to open dialogue about the potential social and ethical implications, nanotechnology could successfully plot a radically different course to that of biotechnology and GM foods. Drexler’s essay in chapter 3 offers a helpful historical survey of the history of ideas and terminology that concerns the nano debate. He argues that confused language and misdirected arguments have successfully helped to restrict and prohibit public dialogue of what is currently known and what could possibly occur into the future. An analysis of the classic talk given by Feynman and Smalley’s response is helpful and perceptive. The application of micro systems and nanoscience for biomedical application is introduced in chapter 4 and helpfully details some of the revolutionary applications including targeted drug intervention and resolving health care crises.

The diverse application of nanotechnology is considered further by Hunt’s contribution in chapter 5. Here he develops his thinking on the subject of whether or not nanotechnology is too broad a term and whether or not nanotechnology and other convergent technologies are “more of the same” or something entirely different. This is an incredibly interesting and insightful chapter contributing some very worthwhile material to this emerging field of technology. Rather than considering it as “more of the same”, Hunt argues that nanotechnology is causing us to rethink what science and technology truly are today, thus forming more of a ‘rebound revolution’ as opposed to a ‘forward revolution’. It is acknowledged that one of the possible consequences of such a revolution is the “dialogue of the deaf”, whereby specialists defend their specialisations to the point that they are no longer in a position to hear what others have to say on the subject, whilst generalists feel their contributions are rejected and therefore shy away from entering into dialogue with scientists and researchers. The result is that fruitful discussion is thwarted.  

Part two looks at regional developments and offers the reader a helpful analysis of how nanotechnology is being applied in different regions of the world. Whilst each of the chapters seeks to paint a ‘broad stroke’ summary, certain chapters are more helpful than others in bringing out salient points in relation to the region in question. Masami, Hunt and Masayuki write a help analysis of the Japanese situation, seeking to highlight the dangers of the Japanese simply considering nanotechnology as another era of ‘clever gadgetry’ and the need for carefully ethical analysis. Kirsty Mills offers the USA perspective with some comparative analysis between the USA and Europe. She notes that there is more of a positive attitude towards technological advances in the USA than in Europe, with the American media more likely to report on the positive and empowering aspects of technology. She makes a compelling case for education as the key to creating greater public awareness and acceptance, which in turns helps to foster a sound legislative and regulatory environment. Hunt picks up on the European perspective by identifying the unique dual tension that Europe experiences, that of sustainability and competition and integration and diversity. He puts forward the case for a global framework responsible for nanotechnology development in which there is some basic agreement about what is important for human welfare given current environmental and ecological conditions. Hunt indicates that due to this dual tension, the EU is perhaps better positioned to initiate such a framework more than any other and has the potential to lead and initiate something of great value in this regard, bearing in mind these same issues will eventually have to be addressed by the USA, Japan and the rest of the world. Linda Goldenberg follows through on these sentiments in chapter 9 where she outlines the Canadian case for nanotechnology. Whilst Canada can be commended for a strong nanotechnology strategy that is tied into its social policy agenda, it has paid little regard for what is happening outside the country and the societal impacts of nanotechnology outside the Canadian framework.  

The theme of benefits and risks are addressed in part 3 of the book. Michael Mehta lays out a convincing argument that nanotechnology is often made unnecessarily complex and unstable due to the failure to consult the public early and often enough. He lays out three key lessons that can be learnt from the regulation of biotechnology in the regulation of nanotechnology. This makes for a stimulating read and covers a great deal of well-researched material. Chapter 11 develops this idea of the need for increased public consultation, particularly through the adoption of “bottom up” as opposed to “top down” communication, seeking to involve relevant expertise, perspective and experience from the start. Roland Clift, in chapter 12, provides some valuable insights and understanding from his involvement in the working group on Nanotechnology of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. The general feeling of the UK government has been that whilst there are no reasons to think there could be harmful impacts resulting from nanotechnology, the nature and extent of the hazards and risks are essentially unknown. Thus, Clift concurs with and expounds upon the recommendations of the Royal Society working group report that proposes an anticipatory approach to risk management concerning nano. Chapter 13 builds on this idea of a more proactive approach to nanotechnology and reviews the latest state of scientific knowledge of the potential effects of particle exposure on health and the current state of knowledge on nanoparticle toxicology. The analysis is good and thorough yet makes for a somewhat arduous read. Leading from this scientific analysis, Arpad Pusztai and Susan Bardocz provide a more stimulating perspective on food science and nutrition. They put forward a nutritional protocol for safety testing of the nanoparticles that have already been or are likely to be introduced and incorporated into human foods.  

Part 4 seeks to address the ethics and public understanding of nanotechnology. Hunt once again sets out an inspiring chapter calling for the real and urgent need for an ethical framework for nanotechnology. In Hunt’s view, the cynical, fearful and defensive outlook that tends to be the norm in today’s society when regarding scientific and technological advances, points to a loss of the inner resource of responsibility. He issues the challenge of whether nanotechnological advances and international co-operation will be used for the service of human and ecological welfare or will it be used to further an ever more increasing desire for consumption. Julie Barnett, Anna Carr and Roland Clift pick up on one of the major themes conveyed through the book in chapter 16, that of the lack of public consultation. Citing Fiorino’s work on motivations for engagement, they give three reasons for engaging the public in discussions concerning nanotechnology. From an instrumental perspective, trust is restored and potential areas of public resistance can be identified and measured. From a normative standpoint, it is a basic democratic right of citizens to be involved and forms a better way of achieving a particular end result. Thirdly, from a substantive perspective, public participation gives way to more robust and better quality decisions as non-experts can bring new perspectives and information to experts and decision makers. Sociologists will enjoy this chapter and the proceeding chapter by Edna Einsiedel and Linda Goldenberg who address the dangers of keeping the social at bay when discussing and developing technology.  

Law and regulation is addressed in part 5 and should be of particular interest to those wishing to consider the legal aspects and ramifications of nanotechnology. Siva Vaidhyanathan addresses the patent system and considers whether or not the patent system will change nanotechnology or whether nanotechnology will change the patent system. Drawing upon her experience of mainly the USA patent system, she proposes that a global nanotechnology patent database could be set up through the United Nations and coupled with some minor adjustments (she suggests shortening the length of patents to 2 years in light of the advances in nanotechnology) conveys her belief that reducing bureaucracy and legal ‘red tape’ in favour of an “open science” process will be far more beneficial to all concerned. Chapter 19 addresses more of the ramifications that face corporations associated with nanotechnology, balancing the potential benefits to humankind with the risks involved. Lorraine Sheremeta develops this thinking further in chapter 20 where she addresses the ethical conduct of biomedical research involving human subjects. In chapter 21, Celia Wells and Juanita Elias address the criminal liability of corporations and the fact that in a global society, firms can move across borders and evade boycotts and sanctions. This directly challenges national and international law and provides clear evidence in favour of an international integrated regulatory enforcement strategy, which is more likely to achieve results than one that is fragmented and inconsistent.  

Mehta and Hunt conclude the book by summarising and bringing together the main strands of thought explored in the book. Among some of their concluding thoughts, in order to see nanotechnology work for humanity as a whole, they suggest the establishing of a multi-stakeholder body, overseen by the UN to review, monitor, regulate and develop nanotechnology. Such a body would function on the principles of organisational accountability, a “right to know” and a duty to openness, transparency and most of all to inform.  


Overall, the book certainly covers a great breadth of research, opinion and comment on what is certainly one of the most pertinent technologies found in today’s society. But as the book suggests, to simply regard it as just another technological or scientific development, is both inaccurate and incomplete. To fully comprehend and appreciate the issue of nanotechnology, many different perspectives need to be considered, not least from an ethical and social standpoint, which is something that is urgently required. In that regard, the book meets its aim of providing a multifaceted review of the state of nanotech in society, involving ethical, environmental, public health, governance and regulatory considerations. Whether it is truly a global overview could be questioned, although seeking to draw in European, North American and Asian perspectives is better than previous attempts. Either way, the book makes a helpful, valuable and intelligent contribution to the nanotechnology debate.




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