Public dialogue on nano should take a back seat until there is more data

By Katie Bird

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Ethics Ultraviolet

Earlier this week the European Commission published a report detailing progress on its Action Plan on nanotechnology – the use of the tiny particles that are tipped to have huge effects on consumer products and society at large.

Within the report there are details of how novel applications and nanotechnology-based products are increasing, and how efforts to address societal and safety concerns must keep pace to ensure the safe development of the technology.

As part of this focus on the ‘societal dimension’, the Commission has implemented, and continues to advocate, a number of outreach programmes, workshops and public dialogue sessions to address the public’s expectations and concerns.

But, what is the Commission looking to get from such programmes?

At present much of the dialogue on nanotechnology comes to the same conclusion: we don’t know enough about how the tiny particles will behave in humans and other organisms in our environment to perform proper risk assessments.

Increasingly, an additional point is being added to this mantra: we need specific​ information regarding specific​ particles that are being used for specific​ applications.

So, there is a lack of targeted information with which the safety of certain nanoparticles and their applications can be judged.

Primarily this suggests that the Commission’s not unlimited resources should be spent here, especially if the focus is to remain on the safety of nanotechnology’s developments.

But, this also raises a second point. Without specific information on pros and cons, the potential benefits versus potential risks of specific applications, how is anyone expected to be able to partake in an informed discussion, be they members of the public or the scientific community?

By definition, without information, an informed debate is not possible. So public dialogue and outreach programmes will either reach a conclusion we know already - we need more information - or will reach conclusions that are not based on research, data and facts but gut reactions.

The Commission should question the value of uninformed gut reactions to the safe advancement of technology. This is not to say that public dialogue has no place in the advancement of science, but rather that perhaps it too needs to be more specific and tailored to applications where the data exists and an informed​ debate is possible.

The recent EU-funded DEEPEN project that included work from universities in the UK, the Netherlands, Portugal and Germany came to the conclusion that there are ‘entrenched failings’ in the governance of nanotechnology.

The project set out to examine the ethics of nanotechnology and related policy and criticised the current debate as being ‘subsumed by banal calculations of ‘risks vs. benefits​’ that leave little room for ‘public narratives of technoscientific failure’​.

Although the ethical implications of each application of nanotechnology can be examined, the ethics of nanotechnology cannot be. It is not a ‘whole’ that can be investigated; it does not seem useful to ask what the ethics of using very small particles is.

In addition, the ‘risk vs benefit’ calculations that are referred to as banal are everything but. The aim must be to use developing technologies to benefit human experience while protecting the environment in which we live and this is impossible without knowledge of the potential benefits and risks associated with it.

In the world of cosmetics for example, nanosize particles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are used in sunscreens as they are deemed to improve the protection bestowed on the consumer against UV radiation. This benefit is not banal. And, if a risk were to be found with using the smaller particles, this too would not be banal.

A risk-benefit analysis should inform whether or not an application is pursued, not a gut reaction on the ethical or unethical nature of an emerging technology.

Although public dialogue has its place in the democratic advancement of science it seems pointless to enter into if questions remain so general, and the European Commission should bear this in mind when it assesses projects for future funding under the societal dimension of its action plan.

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Related topics Formulation & Science

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