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Nanotechnology: The Next Battleground?
Fight may be brewing between rampant capitalism and concerned citizens
John Horvath (jhorv)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2007-02-03 06:16 (KST)   
Nanotechnology is a manufacturing technology on a very small scale. The particles used in nanotechnology research or manufacturing are invisible to the human eye, one nanometer being one billionth of a meter. A human hair is 80,000 nanometers wide.

Although nanotechnology is still very much in its infancy, already there are concerns over the widespread use of the technology. Furthermore, apprehension isn't restricted to one field, but covers areas such as human health, environmental impacts, effects on international trade and developing countries, and the possible proliferation in armaments.

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The concerns expressed by those wary of nanotechnology are very similar to those expressed by critics of biotechnology, namely that we just don't know what the impacts will be. It is this lack of knowledge that has led some to invoke the precautionary principle and call for a moratorium on certain aspects of nanotechnology use and research.

Although most people don't realize it, we are already surrounded by products developed using nanotechnology. Face creams and sun tan lotions are two examples, and there are claims that such creams, which are able to pass through the skin, are potentially mutagenic and cancerous. Other products include such things as self-cleaning trousers and crack-resistant paint.

Nanoparticles can pass into the body by three means: through inhalation, ingestion, and transdermally. It's not so much what nanoparticles are made of as much as their size. Toxicity increases as the size of the particle decreases.

Another worry is where the particles get to within the body. It's already well known from pharmaceutical companies that putting a drug on the back of a nanoparticle can increase the delivery of the drug to the brain. The problem is that if a nanoparticle can get to the brain, then it can also get to other sensitive parts of the body, such as the kidneys, liver, or even foetus.

Aside from this, some are also worried about the military implications of nanotechnology. Research is already being conducted by the military in several countries; indeed, military research into the use of nanotechnology has been going on since the 1980s. Recently, there has been a marked increase in such research activity, particularly in the U.S. Researchers in the U.S. are currently working on a battle suit that would protect soldiers from radiation and also act as a compress when a soldier is injured. Other innovations include the facilitation of surveillance, bombs the size of a pen that could flatten a whole city, and, ultimately, the manipulation of the human body to make soldiers more stress-tolerant, to repair injuries more effectively, and to speed up reactions. What is of concern to many is that once such technology has been used by the military, the transfer to the civilian sector will be a natural step.

As a result of all this, some scientists are calling for a slow deceleration of nanotechnology research in order to buy time for an international agreement on limits to such technology. Some experts claim that governments are currently running around five years behind the times in terms of assessing the potential impacts.

Not only this, but the ways in which researchers handle nanoparticles is justification in itself for slowing down and taking stock of nanotechnology. While scientists in South Africa handle nanoparticles as if they were dealing with the AIDS virus, other researchers, including some in Europe, wear only a "Japanese subway mask" as protection. As one observer put it, "this is like wearing a volleyball net to keep out mosquitoes."

In addition to this, there is the broader socio-economic implications of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology will mean that the raw materials that we currently consider to be essential will change, and that this will have a dramatic effect on developing countries, many of which rely on the export of raw materials. Additionally, the effect on developing countries is such that some countries are adapting themselves to nanotechnology as a means for development. This, in turn, creates a situation where the basic needs of society are brushed aside in favor of high technology centers.

As in other areas of science and technology, such as biotechnology and various areas of computer technology, namely software development, there are also concerns about the impact of intellectual property, as it is conceivable that a single patent may have dominance over many industrial sectors since it could cover the fundamentals of all matters. To this extent, a collusion of interest between industry and government must be avoided. Hence, government policy mustn't be composed by small groups of experts and bureaucrats, but include the general public as well. Moreover, policy makers need to ask the right questions to ensure that big business doesn't circumvent regulation.

The Big Attraction
Although there are many opponents and critics of nanotechnology, not everyone is so skeptical of the new technology. Some even see it as a way of rectifying present enigmas, such as pollution. Because of the scale of the particles in question, it's envisaged that future applications could allow the removal of the smallest contaminants, including greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Some point out that the abandonment of broad areas of technology research, such as nanotechnology, will only push such research underground, where development would continue unimpeded by ethics and regulation. In such a situation, it would be the less stable and less responsible practitioners (for example, terrorists) who would have all the expertise.

To this extent, many who reject calls for a moratorium on nanotechnology note that technology has always been a double-edged sword. Moreover, they argue that forgoing fields such as nanotechnology is untenable. Nanotechnology is simply the inevitable end result of a persistent trend toward miniaturization that pervades all of technology. It is far from a single centralized effort but is being pursued by a myriad of projects with many diverse goals.

Along these lines, the European Commission (EC) has high hopes for nanotechnology. For most politicians, the possible benefits of the technology far outweigh any potential hazards. At best, the precautionary principle is sidestepped by a promise to look into an issue in more depth. For instance, the U.K. government recognized the need for further research in this area and promptly requested a study on the potential benefits and problems of nanotechnology. A report was subsequently released entitled "The social and economic challenges of nanotechnology," prepared by the U.K.'s economic and social research council.

The authors of the report maintain their aim is to "stimulate debate" with the paper's publication. Three areas are highlighted as central to this debate: the governance of technological change; social learning and the evaluation of risk and opportunity under uncertainty; and the role of new technology in ameliorating or accentuating inequity and economic divides. Yet by carefully observing the language of the U.K. report, it's clear that the British government's move is more of an exercise in spin management, with the aim to highlight the benefits and downplay the concerns.

While the report is useful in that it provides a general overview to what nanotechnology is, it nevertheless skims over present day concerns as something which belongs far out into the distant future (and thus the problem of other generations), this despite the fact that many of the worries are over applications and products already on the market. An artificial split is made between current nanotechnology research and applications (i.e., those which may be possible in the medium term) and those which may emerge in the long term. Current applications are predominantly limited to advances in well-established areas of applied science, such as material science and colloid technology. Medium-term applications are likely to focus on overcoming barriers to technological progress, while long term applications are seen as more difficult to predict, and are thus viewed as the focus of most concern by critics.

As with biotechnology, what the "debate" on nanotechnology actually represents is an overall shift in the framework of European science and technology, in where research is moving away from knowledge generation to one of income generation. The two are mutually exclusive, as the pursuit of profit means patents and intellectual property rights put limits on the free flow of information. While competition may mean the production of cheaper goods, it also means withholding vital knowledge for fear that your rival may end up making money off your ideas.

This is the enigma that Eurocrats have been struggling to overcome. Although capable of producing excellence in terms of research, Europe is finding it hard to capitalize on it. While the EU shows a creditable performance in some fields (such as medical research, chemistry, aeronautics or telecommunications), it is falling ever further behind in biotechnology and the information technologies.

Overall, Europe's performance in terms of trade in high technology is continuing to deteriorate: its trade deficit in this field increased from 9 billion euro in 1995 to 48 billion in 2000. For the EC, a clear indicator of this competitive weakness is the falling share of patent registrations of European origin, whether on the European or the U.S. market.

But there is one ray of hope: in the nanotechnologies, a sector with a particularly promising future, Europe is almost level with the United States in terms of publications and patents. Thus, the only way to stop the overall decline of Europe's performance of trade in high technology is to increase European investment in research, with the ultimate aim of turning knowledge into profit. For many Eurocrats, the E.U. had already lost out in the bitter harvest over biotechnology; they now feel that they must make sure that the same doesn't happen with nanotechnology.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter John Horvath

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