Impacts of Nanotechnologies

Nanotechnologies are expected to have wide-reaching impacts for all members of society. The economic impacts have been widely touted, and possibly over-hyped, but hundreds (at a conservative estimate) of nanoproducts are already in the marketplace. Many of these products are at the low-tech end of the nanotechnology spectrum (sunscreens, cosmetics, hockey sticks….) and more exotic medical, electronic and other technologies are only starting to become visible. There is now widespread acknowledgment that revolutionary nanotechnologies are likely to become reality later rather than sooner – and that self-assembling nano-robots and grey goo will not be seen for decades, if ever.

The international discussion of impacts of nanotechnologies fits within a wider conversation about impacts of new technologies. In general the need to commercialise new technologies (because of significant benefits, including economic ones) has to be balanced by the need to consider and, as far as possible eliminate, negative impacts. No new technology is risk or impact free, and so judgments need to be made as to what level of risk is acceptable – for society to make such judgments effectively all stakeholders need to participate in the discussion.

The discussion so far

One of the more concrete outcomes of the discussion to date is that there is general acknowledgement that many nanotechnologies (for example the ongoing development of nanoscale electronic devices within computer chips) are unlikely to have social, health or environmental impacts beyond those of existing technologies. Currently, therefore, attention is focussed on those technologies which result in release of nanomaterials into the environment or in exposure to humans.

There has been very significant research world wide aimed at understanding the social, health, and environmental impacts of nanotechnology. Much of the motivation for this work has stemmed from a desire to avoid a GE-style backlash against nanotechnology, and has focussed on public perceptions of nanotechnology (which are widely reported as being quite positive). While there is certainly much scope for further valuable work in this area – and a clear need for work on how best to manage the dialogue between scientists, commercial interests, social scientists, regulators, governments and the general public - there are other areas where even less work has been completed.

For example, there is a growing worldwide effort to understand the direct impacts of nanotechnologies – addressing for example toxicology and environmental concerns. The body of literature in this area is rapidly expanding but there is widespread agreement that understanding the health and environmental impacts of all the many existing and proposed nanomaterials, in all their many forms and sizes, presents a daunting challenge that will not be addressed quickly. This therefore means that for the forseeable future there are going to be significant unknowns – we will often be unable to either prove or disprove conclusively that a product is safe. A key challenge for those assessing impacts of nanotechnology, and especially for regulators, is how to proceed with these “known unknowns”.

My selection of the most interesting reports

My selection of the most interesting websites