How safe is nanotechnology?
Last week in Parliament the Prime Minister was heard calling for more graduates in nanotechnology. At the same time, former University rector Fr Peter Serracino Inglott warned of ethical questions surrounding a "nanotechnology buzz".
The European Union is committed to future and emerging technologies. The expanding market for nanotech, though still poorly regulated, is expected to bring 'disruptive' changes to world markets. Much of the research money, which runs into several billion euros, is spent on safety assessments.
Advances in the medical world are ushering in a whole new era. Imagine a nano robot (nanobot) only six atoms wide, which can be injected into your bloodstream to locate and fix problems in your body. This technology may also be developed for neutralising pollutants. While projected benefits for medicine and the environment are thought to be exceptional, some health concerns linger.
Additives in chicken feed have opened up a nanotech pathway to remove dangerous bacteria from poultry. Chocolate nanoshakes are said to taste better and claim to be more nutritious than conventional milkshakes.
On the health side, it has been discovered that inhaled nano particles can cause cell death, and eventually, lung damage in humans. Adding compounds to products that are likely to cause a problem, or injecting them directly into the body to block a reaction, is seen as the solution.
Since its discovery in the mid-1980s, nanotech has brought hundreds of products into our daily lives. It involves controlling atoms and molecules to create new materials to make products lighter, stronger, cleaner, less expensive and more precise.
Further research will see the spread of nanotechnology to many other areas with a huge impact on markets. Yet observers fear that scientists and entrepreneurs are using the term nanotechnology to garner funding regardless of interest in the transformative possibilities of more ambitious and far-sighted work.
This is the sunrise of a technology that may change or eliminate whole industries, unsettling national and global economies. The span of industries set to be disrupted by nanotech developments ranges from electronics and telecom to pharmaceutical, cosmetics and more.
Disruptive innovations, bringing a wave of cheaper, better nano products, will create both crisis and opportunity for established business. The race to take advantage and stay ahead is on - but are adequate safeguards in place, and what exactly are the risks?
As with all great technologies there is interest from many quarters. Far-sighted fears abound that untraceable nano weapons, smaller than an insect but with the intelligence of a supercomputer, could start a new arms race. Virtually undetectable surveillance devices could be used to invade privacy.
Thirty years down the line from now, self-replicating robots feeding on living matter could manifest as a kind of sci-fi horror dubbed 'grey goo'. While theoretically possible, this scenario seems more than unlikely at the moment.
As we teeter on the edge of unprecedented territory, society needs to stake out its role in responsible development of nanotechnology.
A European research project has set out to deepen ethical engagement and participation in emerging nanotechnologies. The key finding is that industry needs to be more open about nanotech.
The public is concerned about the motivation driving new technologies and are suspicious that the risks will be spread across society, while the benefits will not be distributed equally.
There is scepticism about stakeholder dialogue exercises which can lead to a cosy consensus. The aim of engaging the public in shaping science policy should not be simply to get society to accept new technologies. Policymakers must find new ways to ensure public views are used to inform science policy.
The European Commission sees the need for an informed debate about the safety of products at the nanoscale, how future advances can be monitored and controlled, and who may profit from them.
A project known as Nanologue (www.nanologue.net) notes that access to technology can be a double-edged sword:
Developing a technical fix to some of the social and environmental challenges we face might divert investment from cheaper, more sustainable, or low-technology solutions to health and environmental problems. It might also divert attention from the root causes of the original challenges.
The project report, entitled The Future of Nanotechnology: We Need to Talk, which muses over three futuristic but varied nanotech scenarios, recalls how genetic modification had raised serious questions about corporate transparency.
"It is essential that the relevant stakeholders respond to issues raised in dialogue and appreciate that, while this may slow down some aspects of technological development in the short term, it makes for a far better long-term prospect," the report recommends.
Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli has said that responsible innovation would be his guiding principle when dealing with new technologies.
A progress report on implementation of existing regulations on nanomaterials is the next step, but is not due out until next year. A vote on the regulation of novel feeds taken on May 4 is to be endorsed in July, provided MEPs and members states can agree on a final text.
Commenting on the European Parliament environment committee's vote, the European Environment Bureau's nanotech officer said: "There are serious knowledge gaps regarding the general safety of nano, and there is great public concern about nano in food." But he assured consumers they were a step closer to being sure that nanofoods will not land on their plates unless it is proven to be safe.