"The Opportunities for Good and Bad Offered by Nanotechnology Demand an International Response"
In his new book Nanotechnology: New Promises, New Dangers , Toby Shelley, journalist at the Financial Times, introduces us to the ?emerging world of nanotechnology?, the engineering of new materials and new products at the infinitesimally small, or nano, scale.
Toby Shelley, what are the potential benefits of nanotechnologies and
The potential benefits range from mundane enhancements to existing products to some of the most exciting breakthroughs imaginable in the spheres of medicine, IT and energy. Taking medicine first, progress is reported virtually daily on using nanotechnology to diagnose illnesses, target the affected cells, and treat with appropriate doses or with new forms of treatment. In IT, where chip makers have long been operating at the nano scale, new lithographic techniques offer ways to stretch the silicon-chip paradigm to new limits whilst indicating that incomparably more powerful capacity might be achievable by shifting to DNA-based or quantum switch paradigms. In the energy sector, nanotechnology is proving its worth in enhancing the performance and adaptability of fuel cells and solar panels while lightweight materials for car panels and aircraft bodies will reduce hydrocarbon use per vehicle. Additives are already being trialled that will reduce fuel use.
These and many other potential applications of nanotechnology offer great improvements in the way people live. The most important question is how they will be deployed, who will benefit and who will not. For example, will the pharmaceutical and medical equipment industries target diagnosis and treatment of malaria and bilharzias in the developing world or obesity in the rich world?
Governments and large corporations invest massively in this research field. Do we have any idea of today’s and tomorrow’s market size?
A much used US government figure is that the market will reach a staggering $1 trillion by 2015. A German bank has forecast Euro220bn by 2010. There are numerous problems in forecasting the growth of nanotechnology. To start with the term is rather fluid (and has been the subject of much argument). It can be used to cover so wide a range of techniques, materials and applications in so many industries that tracking it is far more difficult than, say, the expansion of genetic modification where you know you are looking at the food and agriculture sectors. Nanotechnology is a new level of operating across the board. It is as if everyone from doctors to engineers, soldiers to retailers have been working while wearing mittens so far.
So, estimates for individual business sectors may give a better flavour of the values involved. By 2015, nanotechnology revenues from the car industry have been forecast at $6.5bn, for sensors –from the medical to the military - $17bn by 2012, for IT some $125bn by 2010.
In your book, you express some concerns about how nanotechnology programs are governed and controlled…
Yes. There are several very serious concerns here. The predominant one I have already alluded to, which is the one of choice of deployment and that is a choice that is too big to be left to the boardrooms or indeed to the politicians unless they are supervised by civil society. Is investment to prioritise new ways of saving lives or new ways of enhancing already comfortable lives or, indeed new ways of taking lives?
At another level, we must acknowledge our own ignorance. We are playing with materials the chemical composition of which we may be familiar with but the properties of which at the nanoscale we do not know. These properties – unexpected strength, massively enhanced or reduced conductivity, reactivity to different light frequencies, biocidal properties or whatever – provide the excitement of delving into nanotechnology but with every adventure comes danger and we must proceed with caution. And, of course, some dangers are also opportunities: in some instances nanoparticles crossing the blood-brain barrier would be a major health risk but in others, potential treatment for Alzheimers disease perhaps, it could be a godsend.
Nanoparticles could also have undesirable effects on the health and environment. Do you consider that scientists underestimate these risks?
It is precisely some scientists who are flagging up the potential dangers. We must learn to control our enthusiasm and ensure that we do not unlearn lessons of the past in our intellectual excitement and financial greed. The human and financial costs of the wonder material called asbestos are still being counted. The precautionary principle must be applied rigorously and cradle-to-grave monitoring and control of nanoparticles is essential. It is pointless using nanoscale ferrous particles for remediation of polluted sites if the process then results in undesirable biotic uptake or generation of new toxins, for example.
A considerable worry is the slowness of governments in establishing oversight of nanotechnology at a time when it is already embedded in our food, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics industries. Regulatory bodies must be staffed by scientists with sufficient expertise to evaluate the products they scrutinise and this scrutiny must be within very cautious parameters, ones industry may well not like.
Some researchers are working on military applications of nanotechnology such as those being developed at the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT. What are the ethical limits of the use of nanotechnologies?
The military is generally at the front of the queue to play with new toys and nanotechnology is no different. The range of potential applications is vast and, frankly, frightening. The MIT programme envisages a super soldier, a man encased in vastly superior lightweight armour that protects, has communications systems embedded, delivers first aid, responds to weather conditions, even provides extra-skeletal muscles. Weapons systems miniaturisation is on the agenda. So are sensing systems in which each sensor is the size of a grain of sand.
The US National Defense University journal is already mooting a tie up between nanotechnology and genetics that could produce ‘nanobots’ capable of identifying and attacking people with particular DNA codes (or destroying particular materials and so sabotaging an enemy’s capability). Is this any more morally acceptable than the biological warfare the international community outlawed decades ago?
And, of course, the suspicion that one state is researching such weapons will drive others to do so, threatening a new arms race and a return to the Cold War notions of Mutually Assured Destruction, first strike capability and so forth.
Then, we should not think that vastly superior RFID technology will not be used by security services against those they deem to be internal enemies.
Is Nanotechnology the new battlefield of advanced industrial countries, leaving poor countries behind?
Yes. With the US federal government spend alone approaching $900m last year – that’s excluding direct military spending, state level spending and corporate investment – and Japan and the EU running to catch up, few developing countries stand a chance of participating in the development process. China and India may be players. Although their investment in research is far smaller than that of OECD countries, that spend will buy more and both countries clearly have large and skilled pools of science professionals. One hopes the pressure of population size and poverty will persuade the governments in Beijing and New Delhi to nudge researchers in the direction of work that will relieve hunger, illness and fuel poverty rather than becoming niche players in a profit-oriented research drive dominated by the rich countries and their corporations.
As to smaller developing countries, most will have little or no role in the development and deployment of nanotechnology. Again, they will be supplicants at the table of rich and powerful, begging for the crumbs of technology and pharmacology when some of the most obvious applications could transform the lives of millions.
If the people of the developing world are to reap the substantial potential benefits of nanotechnology in water purification, solar power, fuel cells, disease diagnosis and so on, we must have an international body charged with commissioning and carrying out practical research and product development geared towards people’s needs.
Do you think these issues are enough debated?
Absolutely not. It is imperative that civil society across the world engages in debate about the potential good and harm that can come from nanotechnology. The role of socially-responsible scientists is very important here. If there is to be debate over the use of nanotechnologies, from narrow debate over the use of particular molecules in a particular product through to the big issue discussions such as whether there should be a moratorium on some military applications, then the public needs to be alerted and informed.
I believe the opportunities for good and bad offered by nanotechnology demand an international response. Concerned individuals and organisations should push for a UN-level body to monitor nanotechnology, to outlaw some uses and promote others.
Toby Shelley, thank you.
 Nanotechnology: New Promises, New Dangers by Toby Shelley. Zed Books: 2006. 208pp. £9.95
Interview by Gilles Prigent