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Nanotechnology prof boggles nano community

On the plane back from last week’s U.S. National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office-sponsored workshop on ethics and nanotechnology, I dug into the report “Health and Nanotechnology: Economic, Societal, and Institutional Impact” (not on web, as far as I can tell). This was the result of a meeting sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the European Commission, part of a series called Perspectives on the Future of Science and Technology, which has a ten-year time horizon. I hope to have time to describe many interesting points of this useful report in future posts. Today, though, I want to share this quotation from Rice University prof. Naomi Halas, a prominent nanomedicine researcher:

Entities that seek to distort the public perception of nanotechnology—by focusing on science fiction scenarios, by calling for research moratoria, by demanding funding specifically earmarked for examining toxicity scenarios—are themselves toxic to an international effort that otherwise would likely yield overwhelmingly positive societal and economic effects around the world.

Strong words. Which organizations are Prof. Halas calling “toxic”? Here’s a list of groups which, prior to the meeting at which she spoke, had already called for funding for nanoparticle safety testing:

Air Products & Chemicals, Inc.
Altair Nanotechnologies Inc.
BASF Corporation
Carbon Nanotechnologies, Inc.
Environmental Defense
Foresight Nanotech Institute
Houston Advanced Research Center
Lux Research, Inc.
NanoBusiness Alliance
Natural Resources Defense Council
PPG Industries, Inc.
Rohm and Haas Company
Union of Concerned Scientists

Not exactly a list of exclusively anti-technology organizations, to put it mildly.

Prof. Halas’s comment is odd on a number of levels:

1. The same meeting included a speaker from the Nanobusiness Alliance, a pro-nanotech trade group, explicitly calling for National Nanotechnology Toxicology Initiatives.

2. She was speaking in Europe — definitely not the place to ridicule environmental, health, and safety concerns.

3. She is based at Rice, home of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, a leading (perhaps the leading) center looking at these issues.

It’s mystifying that Prof. Halas objects so strongly to what is now regarded as a mainstream view. Requesting safety research does not make an organization anti-technology. Such organizations can also be part of an “international effort that…would likely yield overwhelmingly positive societal and economic effects around the world.”

While we’re at it, let’s look at her other categories. We agree that demands for research moratoria are not helpful. But at the NNCO ethics workshop last week, we were told that science fiction scenarios can be useful in thinking about nanotech, as long as they are based on real science, which they can be.

The comment above by Prof. Halas does not detract from her excellent nanomedicine research — and we wish her continued success with it — but it does make one wonder whether policy issues might be better handled by others. —Christine

10 Responses to “Nanotechnology prof boggles nano community”

  1. John Monica Says:

    I agree they are strong words. I haven’t read doc, but surely Prof. Halas is not against nano-related EHS research in and of itself.

    Perhaps the phrase “by demanding funding specifically earmarked for examining toxicity scenarios” is an unclear reference to those who advocate a linkage between all federal nano-research grants and EHS research. Some have proposed every federal nano-research grant have an EHS research component — no matter what the underlying project. Thus, a researcher who obtains a grant to study the use of nanotechnology in semiconductor applications (random example) would be required to use a portion of the federal grant to conduct EHS research related to her primary project.

    As she is involved in federally funded research (unrelated to EHS issues), Dr. Halas’ position might make more sense in this light. It would be interesting to hear Dr. Halas’ own response on this issue.

    Thanks — JCM

  2. Martin G. Smith Says:

    Hi Christine
    Here is a link to:- Health and Nanotechnology: Economic, Societal, and Institutional Impact [Incomplete Title]

  3. Anonymous Says:

    This reminds me of the situation, post-1945, when physicists and other scientists debated whether or not they had the expertise or duty to comment on the risks posed by nuclear weapons. Similar debates arose over the dangers posed by fallout in the 1950s.

    As to the argument that scientists should engage the public in these discussions, I am reminded of a comment by Harold Urey:
    “It is as if a bacteriologist had discovered a dread disease which might lead to a disastrous epidemic. He would not be a ‘politician’ if he asked the city commissioners to take measures to deal with a plague. He would merely be demonstrating common decency and social awareness.”

  4. Christine Peterson Says:

    John — I imagine you’re right.

    Martin — That link doesn’t work for me. The Harvard one works, but the one on that page, which is supposed to go to the report, doesn’t.

    Thanks to those of you who emailed me in response to this. All of your comments were useful. –CP

  5. Martin G. Smith Says:

    Christine – I had no trouble with the link when I first accessed it. However there appears to have been some minds with not enough useful things to do at play. I notified Harvard and will advise you when I get an answer.

  6. Martin G. Smith Says:

    Christine – The link was hacked shortly after I sent it to you. I have received a note from Harvard saying there will be a PDF of the document available in a couple of week. As soon as I get the link, I will pass it on.

  7. Christine Peterson Says:

    Super, Martin, greatly appreciated.

  8. Christine Peterson Says:

    Martin Smith has sent a new URL for part of this report:

    However, this is only 7 pages of a 97 page report. If anyone runs across the whole report online, let me know and I’ll post the URL. –Christine

  9. Nanodot: Nanotechnology News and Discussion » Blog Archive » Nanotechnology for health: 10-year EU-US perspective Says:

    [...] A while back I offered to write more about Health and Nanotechnology: Economic, Societal, and Institutional Impact, a report from a conference convened with the cooperation of the U.S. Dept. of State and the European Commission, part of a series called Perspectives on the Future of Science and Technology, which has a ten-year time horizon. Here are some additional excerpts. From the Introduction: …participants gathered in Varenna to consider how health-related nanoproducts and applications might impact society and the economy, and how institutions might seek proactively to maximize the benefits of nanotechnology while minimizing risk. [...]

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