Nanotechnology prof boggles nano community

On the plane back from last week’s U.S. National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office-sponsored workshop on ethics and nanotechnology, I dug into the report “Health and Nanotechnology: Economic, Societal, and Institutional Impact” (not on web, as far as I can tell). This was the result of a meeting sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the European Commission, part of a series called Perspectives on the Future of Science and Technology, which has a ten-year time horizon. I hope to have time to describe many interesting points of this useful report in future posts. Today, though, I want to share this quotation from Rice University prof. Naomi Halas, a prominent nanomedicine researcher:

Entities that seek to distort the public perception of nanotechnology—by focusing on science fiction scenarios, by calling for research moratoria, by demanding funding specifically earmarked for examining toxicity scenarios—are themselves toxic to an international effort that otherwise would likely yield overwhelmingly positive societal and economic effects around the world.

Strong words. Which organizations are Prof. Halas calling “toxic”? Here’s a list of groups which, prior to the meeting at which she spoke, had already called for funding for nanoparticle safety testing:

Air Products & Chemicals, Inc.
Altair Nanotechnologies Inc.
BASF Corporation
Carbon Nanotechnologies, Inc.
Environmental Defense
Foresight Nanotech Institute
Houston Advanced Research Center
Lux Research, Inc.
NanoBusiness Alliance
Natural Resources Defense Council
PPG Industries, Inc.
Rohm and Haas Company
Union of Concerned Scientists

Not exactly a list of exclusively anti-technology organizations, to put it mildly.

Prof. Halas’s comment is odd on a number of levels:

1. The same meeting included a speaker from the Nanobusiness Alliance, a pro-nanotech trade group, explicitly calling for National Nanotechnology Toxicology Initiatives.

2. She was speaking in Europe — definitely not the place to ridicule environmental, health, and safety concerns.

3. She is based at Rice, home of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, a leading (perhaps the leading) center looking at these issues.

It’s mystifying that Prof. Halas objects so strongly to what is now regarded as a mainstream view. Requesting safety research does not make an organization anti-technology. Such organizations can also be part of an “international effort that…would likely yield overwhelmingly positive societal and economic effects around the world.”

While we’re at it, let’s look at her other categories. We agree that demands for research moratoria are not helpful. But at the NNCO ethics workshop last week, we were told that science fiction scenarios can be useful in thinking about nanotech, as long as they are based on real science, which they can be.

The comment above by Prof. Halas does not detract from her excellent nanomedicine research — and we wish her continued success with it — but it does make one wonder whether policy issues might be better handled by others. —Christine

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