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Nano research should study consequences

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News   |   Nov. 20, 2002 at 1:48 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Nov. 20 (UPI) -- As scientists continue to explore nanotechnology, which involves manipulating matter at the atomic or molecular level, they need to adopt both modest government regulation and open professional conduct to ensure public trust in the discipline, a study released Wednesday cautions.

The study, "Forward to the Future: Nanotechnology and Regulatory Policy," draws on society's experience with nuclear power, genetic engineering and other breakthrough technologies, said Glenn Harlan Reynolds, the study's author.

A professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law in Knoxville, Reynolds also is a member of the board of directors at the Foresight Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., a nonprofit organization focusing on how emerging disciplines such as nanotech can help society.

"Nanotech is inevitable, but the kind of nanotech future we get is still very much in doubt," Reynolds told United Press International. "I would much rather see a positive future where nanotechnology is primarily civilian and beneficial, rather than military and destructive."

The ability to build and control devices at such small scales will affect every aspect of society. Current nanotech manifestations are as innocuous as "clear" sunblock or spill-resistant fabrics, but in prospect are such wrinkles in the economic and social fabric as waste-free manufacturing and medicine practiced at the cellular level.

There are three basic tracks nano development could take, Reynolds said:

-- absolute prohibition, an option already suggested by groups who contend unknown risks would outweigh any benefits;

-- military or classified development, as has been the case with nuclear technologies, in order for some groups or countries to retain control of perceived advantages; and

-- modest regulation of robust civilian research, based on society's experience with recombinant DNA and other biotech tools.

Those calling for a nanotech ban raise reasonable concerns about the possibility of abuse, Reynolds said, but their requests are simply unworkable. The state of accumulated knowledge and the sorts of resources needed for nano research ensure the work will continue, he said.

"There is no requirement for the large fuel-enrichment facilities of nuclear weapons research, no unusual chemical precursors or feedstocks as with chemical weapons, and not even the odd organisms or nutrients of biotechnology," Reynolds said in the study. "A research program could easily be concealed within a wide range of electronics or biotechnology projects."

Similar factors argue against the military R&D option, Reynolds said. Combining self-regulation and government coordination holds the best possibility of minimizing nanotech risks and reaping the most benefits.

The Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco released the study to help build consensus among both nanotech practitioners and policy makers, said Sonia Arrison, director of PRI's Center for Technology Studies.

"Before all this comes to a head in (congressional hearings), we wanted to ensure a discussion would take place in public," Arrison told UPI. "Groups come up and say nanotechnology is the end of the world, and we want to be able to counter them with this paper; our long-term strategy is simply going to be rational education."

Public discussion is essential, Reynolds said, but government efforts such as the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative -- which began in 1996 to coordinate federal research on nanotechnologies -- need to devote more of their funding and resources into such societal concerns. The time to codify principles of acceptable behavior is now, he said, before public opinions on the matter harden into intractable lobbying positions.

The NNI devotes only one-half of 1 percent of its budget to considering nanotech's environmental and health effects, said Vicki Colvin, director of Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology in Houston.

Much more data on these issues is needed to prevent the discipline's "wow" factor from decaying into a publicly perceived "yucky" idea, she told a panel discussion Tuesday at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. Obtaining such information now will be much easier than in the face of future, possibly uninformed public outcry, she told the group, which included several science staff from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some concerns over nanoparticles' possible effects on the human body are likely overblown, Colvin said, given that organs such as the liver are very effective filters and could prevent particle buildup. Researching such concerns could have serendipitous consequences, she said, such as helping discover information on improving cells' ability to absorb medication.

Failure to perform such work and keep the public and lawmakers informed would leave nanotech vulnerable to the same factors that led to genetically modified foods being labeled "Frankenfood" by environmentalists, said Julia A. Moore, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Frequent and open hearings and other government meetings on the issue will help the public understand nanotech's usefulness, which should also engender their trust, she said.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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