Nanotechnology: World Council of Churches promotes UN approval required for all new technologies

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A nanotechnology report has come out from the World Council of Churches titled “Science, Faith & New Technologies: Transforming Life — Volume I: Convergent Technologies.” (PDF) The World Council of Churches is a group of organizations representing 550 million Christians worldwide. From the conclusions:

With public confidence in both private and government science at an all time low, full societal debate on nano-scale convergence is critical. It is not for scientists and governments to “educate” the public, but for society to determine the goals and processes for the technologies they finance. How can society assert democratic control over new technologies and participate in assessing research priorities?

Firstly, society must engage in a wide debate about nanotechnology and its multiple economic, health and environmental implications. Secondly, some civil society organizations have called for a moratorium on nanotech research and new commercial products until such time as laboratory protocols and regulatory regimes are in place to protect workers and consumers, and until these materials are shown to be safe. Given the regulatory vacuum and inertia by leading nano nations to act, the call for a moratorium is justified and deserves public debate…

In the coming decades, technologies converging at the nanoscale will revolutionize the design and manufacture of new materials across all industry sectors, blur the distinction between living and non-living matter, and change the very definition of what it means to be human. The challenge is to go beyond the tired and familiar approach of technocratic regulations related to “risk” and gain an innovative capacity for democratic control and assessment of science and technology.

First, I’m not sure it’s true that public confidence in science is at an all time low. Perhaps this is true in Europe, but I think scientists in the U.S. are still respected, especially compared to some other professions, such as politicians. Second, I wonder whether WCC really wants to say that it’s justified to call for a moratorium on nanotech research until the materials are shown to be safe. Sounds like research to me.

Third, note the repeated use of the term “democratic control” including “democratic control…of science”. Sounds plausible at first hearing. But democratic control means majority control, and in many countries Christians are in the minority. In other countries they are still the dominant culture but losing ground fast. Are the rights of these Christians to learn science and develop and use technologies to be determined by the majority? This may merit further thought.

As I read the report, I kept thinking “this sounds just like an ETC report,” and sure enough, there is strong ETC representation on the author list. The WCC site also has a nanotech primer…but it’s entirely by ETC. The primer’s final conclusion:

The international community must create a new United Nations body with the mandate to track, evaluate and accept or reject new technologies and their products through an International Convention on the Evaluation of New Technologies (ICENT).

Oh sure, this is just what we need: a UN committee to decide what new technologies and products are to be allowed worldwide. Headline: “ICENT approval delays reach 143 years”. It’s hard to imagine a worse idea.

This is not to say that we might not need some kind of international organization someday to deal with, say, nanoweapons. I expect we will. But the ETC proposal is not the way to go. The WCC might want to start looking at this whole topic in a broader way, rather than relying on one external organization so heavily. —Christine

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