Careful with that nanotech Eugene

18 March 2010

Earlier in the decade, the Royal Society led a nanotechnology programme that was meant to settle nerves about Prince Charles’s fear of a grey-goo planet. People held the programme up as an example of how to deal with public fears of technology gone bad and is largely responsible for the path that various bodies are taking with fields such as synthetic biology.

You basically can’t get a project funding without some ethical component in synthetic biology on the basis that the Royal Society demonstrated that obvious public engagement, and lots of it, can’t go wrong.

Apparently, nobody told the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) that the Royal Society had successfully despatched concerns over the safety of nanotechnology in general. (However, I confess that I’ve been muttering darkly that the nanotechnology scare didn’t get killed off, it just went quiet for a while.) The strategy launched today by BIS should come sheathed in a high-vis jacket and plastered with signs about being careful not to slip up on its shiny surface.

It took a couple of hours for the report to appear. The BIS website took a sudden dislike to the content and decided to deliver a Fatal Error instead instead of a web page and download link. Maybe the document didn’t pass the web-safety test until it received another final going-over with the danger detector.

Open up the strategy — which could be the shortest-lived technology strategy ever if the polls are correct — and you find it uses pretty much the same approach as previous technological initiatives from BIS and its predecessors. Namely, set up a leadership council, encourage some communication between academia and industry — which the various Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTNs) are already doing — and report back in a couple of years to see how it’s going.

However, ladled on top of that is 'elf and safety and lots of it. The strategy document calls on the Nanotechnology Research Strategy Group to set up no less than three task forces to focus on safety, with a fourth to concentrate on “social and economic dimensions” — you guessed it, more public engagement. A fifth will work out how to spot stray nanomaterials in the wild.

Part of the problem is the way that nanotechnology as it exists today has become a catch-all phrase for modern chemicals. Although so-called nanomaterials take advantage of advances in chemistry and, in some cases, biotech, they are simply chemicals and materials — just with a greater focus on the intermolecular structure as that has a key influence on their chemical properties. If the government expects to be able to get to the end of this programme (assuming the electorate allows it to begin) with a declaration of “nanotech safety in our time”, then the ministers and civil servants involved are fooling themselves. Each one is different; just like your regular chemicals.