Environmental Science & Technology has a piece on “the increasing concern among insurers about the emerging risks of nanotechnology” triggered by the decision of a small unheard of mid-western insurance company, obviously peeved at not being asked to insure anything more interesting than a tractor or field of corn, to exclude nanotechnology from its policies. My colleague Dexter Johnson blogged about the absurdity of this here.
There are two things going on here. Firstly. many people confuse growing awareness with growing concern. When I was looking at this problem with major insurance companies six years ago it is inconceivable that a small outfit like Continental Western would ever have heard of nanotechnology, let alone had a clue what it was. As the technology enters the mainstream consciousness, more and more people will become aware of not only the befits, but also the potential risks, and that’s not a bad thing. Is concern increasing? I don’t think so. As more and more studies on the environmental health and safety issues are undertaken, the number of “unknown unknowns” is steadily reduced and insurance companies are better able to quantify risk, something that was impossible six years ago.
The second issue here is that the media likes a scare story (see for example this headline “Insurance companies won’t cover nanotechnology anymore”) and plenty of people have made a nice academic career from doom mongering – something I discussed a couple of years ago.
Given the funding at stake from the new nanotechnology bill currently navigating the US political minefield, we can expect plenty more lobbying disguised as news designed to sway opinion on Capitol Hill over the coming months.
The underlying story though is that the insurance and re-insurance industry as a whole wield a lot of power – if they decide that uncertainties over nanotech are important, they can influence investment/development. And they are keeping an eye on things – remember the 2004 SwissRe report?
On the other hand, some innovative partnering between insurers, business (and possibly govt – not sure on that one) could do a lot to underpin successful nano.
My favourite quote from the whole (nano) insurance business was “insurance allows industry to take risks.” The question then becomes one centred around how much to charge industry.