Sunday, January 18, 2009

Nanotechnology: Risk, Ethics and Law. Book Review

Nanotechnology: Risk, Ethics and Law. Book ReviewThis book joins a growing number of publications exploring the opportunities, risks and implications of nanotechnologies. The question of what constitutes nanotechnologies, the extent to which they will disrupt or converge with existing technologies, and how best to reap the benefits of applications, while minimizing the risks have been major themes in recent discussions in the scientific community in the UK, US, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. Further, the issue of how best to engage ‘the public’ before technologies become established, to ensure consent and legitimacy for developments, has preoccupied science groups and science policymakers, particularly in the UK, where a number of recent public engagement initiatives have been undertaken. The 2004 report, Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties, published jointly by the UK’s Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, has served as a focal point in debates about the implications of nanotechnologies and reflects concerns about public responses to this emergent field in the wake of the GM controversy of the late nineteen nineties. However, although highlighting a number of pertinent issues, this publication is science-focused and gives relatively scant attention to the socio-political, ethical, legal and global dimensions of nanotechnologies. The wide-ranging discussion of these issues in Nanotechnology (which claims to be ‘one of the first comprehensive books on the impacts of nanotechnology’ – p. 273) is therefore welcome.

The book, part of Earthscan’s Science in Society Series, includes contributions focusing on the development of scientific ideas about nanotechnologies, regional developments, the benefits and risks of nanotechnologies and public understanding of related issues, and the legal and ethical implications of innovations. The contributors represent a range of disciplines and fields, including molecular science, electrical and computing engineering, communication studies, oncology, sociology, health policy, law and environmental improvement. This is an impressive cast of contributors who, from their different perspectives, help advance understanding of the multi-dimensional character of the nanotech landscape. The chapters are, in the main, well written and provide useful summaries of a field, which is both contentious as to its boundaries and rapidly advancing as a consequence of huge investment, particularly in the United States under the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), launched in 2000.

The early chapters (comprising Part 1) emphasise the history of the ideas and the contending definitions of nanotechnology, as well as the expectations for the field. They offer a useful orientation to the science and its potential applications for those who are unfamiliar with the issues. Novel properties are seen to emerge at the nano (billionth of a metre) level. Nano-size structures and processes are believed to offer new possibilities in diverse fields, including the manufacture of super-hard materials, the minituarization of electronic components and medical devices, new means of environmental management and of imaging, and novel sensing, monitoring and intelligence devices. However, these novel properties are seen to also present risks, particularly those arising from the manufacture of nanoparticles which may affect ecosystems and human health. Consequently, like other emergent technologies, such as medical genetics and GMOs, nanotechnologies have been greeted with a mixture of both fascination and fear. Taking responses to earlier technologies as a cue, Kulinowski argues (Chapter 2), one may predict a likely trajectory for the controversy surrounding this new field to follow from ‘wow’ to ‘yuk’. Uncertainties and fears are in particular associated with the predicted convergence or the synergistic combination of multiple technologies (e.g. Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science) (NBIC), which are likely to present new possibilities of human performance enhancement, manipulation, surveillance and control. The trajectory for controversy, however, is likely to play out somewhat differently in different national contexts. The book’s discussion of nanotech developments in Japan, the United States, Europe, and Canada (in Part 2) therefore is interesting in highlighting both commonalities and divergences in the path of technology development. Like biotechnologies, nanotechnologies are seen by policymakers in a number of countries as having applications in numerous fields and as potentially delivering major economic benefits. International competitiveness is a major driver of policies. However, the trajectory of innovations is shaped by local politics, history and culture. In Japan and the United States, the political-industrial elite are less welcoming of the precautionary criticism of nanotechnologies than in Europe where the emphasis has been on the policy of ‘better safe than sorry’ and on ‘upstream’ public engagement as early in technology development as possible. The chapters comprising this Part provide a useful description of these trends, although are limited in terms of their analysis and critique of issues and policies and assessment of potential longer-term impacts.

Other Parts (3, 4 and 5) include chapters on the benefits and risks and risk management of nanotechnologies, the global ethics of nanotechnologies, risk, trust and public understandings of nanotechnology, toxicological issues, the future of nanotechnology in food science and nutrition, the lessons from the biotechnology field, nanotechnology and the law of patents, matters of civil and corporate criminal liability and the ethical conduct of research involving human subjects. These chapters offer both a useful summary of some recent debates about the regulatory challenges posed by innovations and serve as a source of information on current policies and legislation. Finally, the concluding chapter (‘What makes nanotechnology special?) (Part 6) emphasises the importance for nanotechnology of gaining the support of users of nanotechnology products and ‘the public at large’ if it is to become a ‘mature and sustainable technology’. Here, the potential for a ‘nano-divide’ is raised, and the reader is offered the pessimistic prediction that ‘Nanotechnology will reinforce global inequalities by fostering a nano-divide’. The chapter concludes with a recommendation that the United Nations or a similar body convenes an international conference oriented to the creation of ‘a permanent international multi-stakeholder body (for example, International Nanotechnology Agency) to review, monitor and regulate developments in nanotechnology’.

Like many edited collections, this one lacks a coherent theoretical argument and clear normative position. Further, the book makes little reference to the significance of the media in framing debates and to the politics of the public representations of emergent issues. This is a field full of expectation and competing claims about applications, benefits and risks, with much at stake in how issues are defined and communicated. Depictions of fact and fiction compete and blur in the me? lange of the numerous claims and counter-claims about the technologies’ possibilities and risks. As Vaidhyanathan (Chapter 18) points out, ‘Despite current nanotechnology claims being more relevant to science fiction than science, billions of dollars have gone into firms – all of which hope against hope that they will be among first-movers in this field and marshal the great proportion of what some claim will be a ‘US$1 trillion prize’. Nothwithstanding its limitations, however, the book can be recommended for its coverage of a broad range of topics, its inclusion of many disciplinary perspectives and its focus on the social, ethical and legal implications of developments which has been missing from many discussions thus far. This will make it an invaluable resource for science and technology scholars and students, science policymakers and funders, and indeed anyone wishing to learn more about this rapidly developing field.

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