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Scientists call for nanotech caution

No grey goo apocalypse likely, but still...

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A new report has called for more research into the effects of nanoparticles on the environment and on human health. The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineers (RAE) asks for tighter regulation of nanotechnology research, and has recommended to the British government that production of 'free' nanoparticles should be specifically prohibited until more is known.

In the meantime, it recommends that both nanoparticles and nanotubes should be treated as new chemicals under UK and European law, as this would mean they would have to go through rigorous safety tests and would be appropriately labelled.

The report follows a year-long independent study of the technology, commissioned by the government in June 2003. Its cautious tone is not surprising: science took a public battering during the row over genetically modified food, and the Royal Society and RAE would clearly prefer the public to view their approach as careful, not cavalier.

While acknowledging the potential benefits of nanotechnology, the report cautions against presenting it a a solution to every problem, to avoid sparking a backlash. It says that the lack of evidence about the risks it poses has resulted in considerable uncertainty - both in the public, and in the scientific community.

Nanotech also has its own image problems, sparked by Eric Drexler's now infamous description of runaway replication, a nightmare scenario in which the world is consumed by replicating nanobots and turned into grey goo. Drexler has subsequently said he thinks this is actually very unlikely, but the notion is so vivid, it still persists.

The Prince of Wales has also called for a careful approach: in an article in the Independent of Sunday he described his concerns that nanotechnology had the potential to be both physically and economically harmful if is it not used correctly.

Meanwhile, Nanotech enthusiasts point to the ways it could transform our lives through revolutions in computing, medical research and instrumentation, and by taking electronics beyond current limits. The economic impact would also be huge: Philippe Busquin, European Research Commissioner, has described the technology as "the oil of the future economy".

Lord Sainsbury, the Minister for Science and Innovation, welcomed the report. "We have learned that it is neccessary with major technologies to ensure that the debate takes place 'upstream'," he said.

He thanked both the Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineers for their work, and promised a formal government reponse to the report by the end of the year, after careful reflection on the recommendations.

You can read the report here. ®

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