US and European approaches to advanced nanotechnology implications compared

Government-sponsored discussions of the implications for society of advanced nanotechnology and other emerging technologies have taken place and are ongoing in both the US and Europe. A recent Nanowerk Spotlight written by Michael Berger gives an update of deliberations in Europe and compares and contrasts the US and European approaches. From “Europe and the U.S. take different approaches to Converging Technologies“:

The two differing approaches that the European Union and the U.S. take in tackling converging technologies is exemplary for the philosophical difference in how these two geographies approach the development of new technologies. Policies in the U.S., especially during the past eight years, have been, well, shaped is not the right word here, let’s say drifting, towards a purely market-driven approach to technology development: the government’s job was to provide sufficient basic R&D funding, keep a minimum of consumer safety levels, but otherwise not to get into the way of industrial activities. In addition, a major driver and funding agent for emerging technologies has been the military (for instance, over 30% of all federal investment dollars the U.S. spends on nanotechnology come from the U.S. Department of Defense — “Military nanotechnology – how worried should we be?”).

In contrast, the European approach places the emphasis on the agenda-setting process itself. Rather than letting the market call all the shots, the European approach favors a guided development where societal, safety and environmental aspects are incorporated into the decision-making process. It envisions that various European converging technologies research programs will be formulated, each addressing a different problem and each bringing together different technologies and technology-enabling sciences. The European concept of “CTEKS: Converging Technologies for the European Knowledge Society” (pdf download, 876 KB) adopts a demand-driven approach in which converging technologies respond to societal needs and demands. While the U.S.-pushed NBIC (nano, bio, info, cogno) approach focuses strongly on enhancement of the individual human being, the European approach urged to take the precautionary principle into account and made it “a priority to clarify the civil and societal benefits of this research to give them a new legitimacy and to put them firmly in a context of positive social dynamics.”

U.S. proposed agendas for convergence that include “Converging technologies for improving human performance” or “Converging technologies for battlefield domination” were rejected by the European expert group that helped define the European approach as troubling and potentially destabilizing.

The main task of the EU-funded project CONTECS was to develop ideas for a comprehensive and integrated European agenda with regard to converging technologies. The project delivered its final report — An analysis of critical issues and a suggestion for a future research agenda (pdf download, 2 MB) — in May of this year. This Nanowerk Spotlight summarizes the main points of this report and all quotes and most references are taken from it.


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