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Prince Charles gives forth on nanotech

No grey goo apocalypse, but caution required

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The Prince of Wales has called for greater consideration of the social, environmental and ethical implications of nanotechnology. He says that at this early stage of research, risk assesment must keep pace with commercial development.

Writing in the Independent on Sunday, HRH seems content to acknowledge that the technology has tremendous potential to improve our lives, and dismisses claims that he fears nanotech will lead to grey goo taking over the world: "Such beliefs...belong in the realms of science fiction," he said.

However, this does not amount to a full scale endorsment of nanotech research. The Prince has plenty of questions he says have not been answered, and calls for "the sensible debate that should accompany the introduction of such technologies which work at the level of the basic building blocks of life itself".

"Some of the work may have fundamental benefits to society, such as enabling the construction of much cheaper fuel-cells, or new ways of combatting ill-health," he writes. "Yet the techniques operate at the same scale as the 'self-assembly' of natural processes. Is there a danger of awarding patents on Nature?"

He says that only an estimated five per cent of the EU research budget for nanotechnology is being spent on looking into these considerations, a figure he says "does not inspire confidence".

He warns that without debate on a fundamental level, that includes the views of non specialists, the world risks repeating earlier mistakes. He quotes the retired Cambridge professor of engineering John Carroll, who, when referring to the thalidomide disaster, said that it "would be surprising if nanotechnology did not offer similar upsets unless appropriate care and humility is observed".

Having successfully picked a controversial topic to stir things up a bit, guaranteeing him the debate he wants, the Prince goes on to argue that there are two main points that need more discussion: ownership and control of the technology, and liability for any unforseen consequences. "What exactly are the risks attached to each of the techniques under discussion, who will bear them, and who will be liable if and when real life fails to follow the rose-tinted script?" he asks.

Finally, he calls for consideration of potential economic fallout, cautioning that new developments will inevitably displace older technologies. Will this, he asks, lead to a widening gulf between rich and poor nations?

The Royal Society, which has just launched a joint study of nanotechnology with the Royal Academeny of Engineers, has welcomed his article, according to The BBC, but said that it was hard to draw a direct parallel between nanotech and thalidomide. However, a spokesman for the organisation said that the thalidomide case "warns of the possible risks that can be associated with new technologies and the need to address public concerns and interests". ®

Related link

Prince Charles' original article

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