Nanotechnology: SGR concerns

SGR response to Royal Society/ Royal Academy of Engineering consultation on nanotechnology, 10 July 2003

SGR welcomes this opportunity to comment on the rapidly expanding area of nanotechnology.

SGR is an independent UK organisation of approximately 600 scientists promoting ethical science and technology, which we define as open and accountable, and contributing to peace, social justice and environmental sustainability.

We have a number of comments and concerns, summarised here.

Nanotechnology crosses a huge range of fields including physics, engineering and medicine. Arguably, because of this diversity, it may be counter-productive to give it a single label as this gives the misleading impression of homogeneity. The social, environmental, ethical and economic issues can be very different in different areas of this cross-cutting field. As a consequence there is a real risk that possible benefits or damage which may be of importance in one area are perceived by policy-makers, public or the media as applying to all areas. This could mean, for example, that (a) due to a perception of major economic benefits extending across the whole field that certain specific risks (eg the toxicity of certain nanoparticles) will be improperly considered by policy-makers; or conversely (b) some benefits will be lost because of a public perception that major environmental damage (eg the 'grey goo' scenario) is likely to result from any technological development within the field.

However, there are some particular concerns that SGR has which are cross-cutting. In particular, we are concerned that the development of these technologies is being driven by narrow economic and military agendas, rather than broader social or environmental ones. For example:

  • the second largest recipient of US Government funding for nanotechnology is the Department of Defense [1];
  • the global market for nanotechnology is rapidly expanding and by 2015 is expected to be worth as much as $1 trillion [2].

Hence SGR is deeply concerned that:

  1. inadequate examination of the social, environmental and ethical implications of these technologies will occur resulting in unpredicted and potentially large adverse effects;
  2. any problems which do come to light will not be given due weight in decisions regarding implementation, and/or regulation to prevent damaging effects will be inadequate;
  3. alternative non-technological social and political solutions and/or intermediate technological solutions will be marginalised or not funded.

There are further examples which illustrate our concerns. At a recent conference [3], Dr Renzo Tomellini, co-ordinator of the European Commission's research programme on nanotechnology, made an estimate that about 5% of the EC’s funding of nanotechnology was engaged in examining environmental, social and ethical dimensions of these technologies. We find it disturbing that (a) an accurate figure had not been calculated (it was clear from his comments that this was an educated guess and the actual figure was not known); and (b) that this figure was thought to be so low. If you consider this in the light of, for example, the construction of any new major infrastructure project in the EU, which is required to undergo a detailed sustainability assessment, it is surprising that there is no similar provision for the introduction of new technologies. Obviously, the complexities of new technologies will be greater, but that is a reason to expand investment in the examination of possible drawbacks. Hence SGR believes that, given that new science and technology can have profound, long-lasting effects on society and any damage caused may be major and irreversible on time-scales of decades to centuries or longer, that in the region of 30% of the investment in emerging technologies should be devoted to examining the wider social, environmental and ethical implications.

Another illustration of our concern comes from the field of GM agriculture. The UK Government recently admitted that it spends 30 times more on R&D into GM agriculture than on organic farming [4], despite the latter's significant potential to address environmental and social problems. Nanotechnology could cause a similar diversion of funding away from a much wider range of alternatives practices/technologies.

In conclusion, we should emphasise that we are not opposed in principle to the research and development in the fields of nanoscience and nanotechnologies: indeed we recognise that there are potentially significant benefits in terms of reducing the environmental impacts of modern society through reduced material and energy consumption. However, without serious changes to the way scientific research and technological development are guided and deployed in this area, we are sceptical that many of the benefits will be realised in practice.


[1] p61 of ETC Group (2003) "The Big Down: from genomes to atoms". 80pp. See also: Altmann J. and Gubrud M.A. (2002) Risks from military uses of nanotechnology - the need for technology assessment and preventative control.

[2] p42 of ETC Group (2003) "The Big Down: from genomes to atoms". 80pp.

[3] "Atomtechnology: Nanotechnology and converging technologies - the implications for Europe and the world." Conference at European Parliament, Brussels. 11th June, 2003.

[4] Jeff Rooker, 19 April 1999, reply to Parliamentary Question no. 80791, House of Commons Hansard.