Back in 2001 when I was involved with the European Nanobusiness Association, NanoBusiness Alliance and other bodies, the real fear was that a knee jerk reaction by a politician worrying about “gray goo” could kill nanotechnology off before it even got started. The impending publication of Prey by Michael Crichton had people worrying themselves sick over the image of nanotechnologies, and the prospect of a blockbuster movie based on the book raised the spectre of even illiterate policy makers being terrified by all things nano.
As it turned out, the book wasn’t particularly good and the movie never got made, and as the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment reports today, nanotechnology is not currently a subject of controversy in the German print media with 70 percent of the articles examined focused on the positive sides to nanotechnological products and processes.
This probably comes as quite a surprise to readers of the UK media who have been bombarded recently, whether nanocosmetics last week or today’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report on Novel Materials discussed by Andrew Maynard here.
As always, there is a story behind the story. The Guardian amusingly misses the point by a mile in their ‘Backstory” box, blabbering on about gray goo and how “Nanoparticles behave unlike lumps of the same material – stronger, more toxic, and with radically different electrical properties” while other reports use it as an excuse to call for tougher regulation.
Today’s Environmental Pollution report in fact reflects the deep disappointment among UK scientists that the UK governments response to the 2004 Royal Society report was “Hmm, very interesting, we’ll get back to you once we find someone who knows or cares what this motley crew of eggheads and boffins is on about.” In fact it’s more than disappointment, they are hopping bloody mad, and if having headlines such as
Tiny but toxic: Nanoparticles with asbestos-like properties found in everyday goods
appearing in the Daily Mail is the only way to bed the ears of the politicians then so be it. However, as I have mentioned before, thumb twiddling is a key part of the political arsenal. If you don’t have a clue what to do about something just appoint a Commission to look into it which effectively buries the issue for a while. Given the number of Commissions looking at nanotechnologies and then reporting back, setting up a special Commission on toxicology might be a good way of avoiding actually having to do anything, and it will then be a problem for the next government.
Regulating nanomaterials or nanotechnologies as a whole is clearly unworkable due to the myriad applications, but there does seem to be an opportunity to take a fresh look at risk assessment as the endless stream of reports and scare stories do indicate that all is not well.
So five years on from Prey, it’s not a knee jerk reaction we are worried about, but more whether there will be any reaction whatsoever. When science ministers seem to be making up policy by getting a junior to google nanotechnology then we seem to be in deep trouble.