Science and public policy, a look back

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November 2002

By Paul M. Bray

Nanotechnology, are we moving too fast?

By Paul M. Bray

When I think about nanotechnology, the making of molecular-size objects and devices or “gray goo”, and its surrounding hype, I think about Simon and Garfunkle singing “Slow down, your moving too fast”.

One of the wonderful things about America is its infinite belief in invention, new technologies and the future. Even before we are able to clean up the health and environmental mess from asbestos, radioactive wastes and PCBs and overcome the economic consequences of the collapse of the Dot Com bubble, forces are at work to charge ahead with the production of molecular-size cylinders of carbon with unusual electronic, thermal and structure characteristics.

“Stronger than steel” and seemingly able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, nanotubes are being touted as the do-all wonder substance. Last May engineers at RPI in Troy reported they had produced the world’s longest nanotubes, all of eight inches in length. Not long after the Science Section of the New York Times had an article about “dreams of epic engineering like spinning a 22,300-mile-long cable out of nanotubes to tether a satellite in orbit around the earth, and then building an elevator that goes from the ground floor literally into outer space.” Needless to say it is a big jump from eight inches to 22,300 miles.

The Foresight Institute has been “founded on the belief that nanotechnology will transform almost every facet of human existence by giving people mastery over matter.” Nanotech theorists are talking about better rocking chairs, increasing human intelligence, answering our energy needs and a longer, decease and debility free life span.

Money is flowing into nanotechnology research. The National Science Foundation’s National Nanotechnology Initiative spent more that $600 million on molecular research. New York State is committing a couple of hundred million dollars to the Center of Excellence in Nanoelectronics at the University at Albany, albeit that not all of this money is purely for nanotech research.

Yet, voices of caution over potential negative health and environmental impacts from nanomaterials are beginning to be heard. Are these just the voices of luddites or a justified wake up call?

The ETC Group from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada was one of the groups that blew the whistle over genetically engineered plants incapable of producing fertile seeds. It has now turned its attention to nanotechnology. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development last August in Johannesburg, they called for a moratorium on commercial production of nanomaterials. Could carbon nanotubes and similar nanoscale particles with their needle like shape be the next generation of asbestos?

Scientist David Blockstein of the National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington, DC was reported as being dismissive of the nano-critics saying that, “The whole idea of looking at nanotechnology as having an environmental impact seems unusual, given that it’s really an issue of scale”. But Blockstein did caution the nanotechnology industry to “work hard to make sure there aren’t big flaws in the science”.

>From Albany one has to wonder who is watching the store for potential risks and flaws in the brave new world of nanotechnology or other technologies generally. It isn’t our State government that has become enamored with high technology. Supporting high tech research with public funds is the one area of consensus between the often-feuding Governor and two houses of the legislature. They all have become boosters rather than being front line guardians of the public welfare.

The colleges and universities that are gobbling up the high tech public research funds are hardly in the position to offer objective scholarly assessments of risks relating to activities from their growing research Centers of Excellence. They may have to soon decide whether the academy should return to their traditional scholarly ways of seeking the truth or continue on the entrepreneurial path they have started down in resent years. They can’t credibly do both at the same time.

Perhaps it is timely to take a look at the go-slower approach of the Europeans when it comes to new technologies. Called the precautionary principle, it requires the proponent of a new activity that raises threats of harm to human health and/or the environment to look for proof beyond a reasonable doubt that potential risks have been scientifically examined.

After a Naples taxi driver sped through a red light, he told me that they view red lights as merely a suggestion. That is how we in America view the caution lights that come with breaking new ground through biological, chemical and other research. The rewards can, of course, be great, but as we have seen so are the risks and costs.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, an environmental and planning law firm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is pmbray@aol.com