UK government slated by own boffins on nanotech policy

Teeny stuff, big issues

The UK government has been castigated by its own picked scientists for spending too much on research into developing nanotechnology and not enough on looking into its dangers.

The Council for Science and Technology (CST), "the UK government's top-level advisory body on science and technology policy issues", says the government has committed £90m to the nanotech industry for 2003-09, but only £3m on checking out "toxicology and the health and environmental impacts of nanomaterials".

In a report (pdf) released yesterday, the top-level advisory boffins expressed their disappointment that the government hadn't stuck to its original plans to take a precautionary approach to nanotech development. Indeed, the scientists seemed to feel at times that there was a wider-ranging problem with the UK's attitude to technology.

"CST also wishes to highlight a more generic issue concerning the way in which government identifies, funds, and manages obstacles to the exploitation of new technologies," it wrote. "The balance between research that develops new applications of nanotechnologies and that which provides the necessary underpinning for its safe and responsible development must be addressed."

But the scientists were scrupulously fair, with harsh words for their academic colleagues too.

"There is no guarantee that the research necessary to public safety and the research that interests the scientific community will be identical."

This has been true ever since the first mad professor set up his dungeon laboratory, of course. Any scientist worth his salt would rather work out how to make dead flesh live again than write up the safety case for doing it. Even so, it's nice to see boffins finally admitting this.

The CST certainly isn't bashing the idea of nanotech in general. It admits that "Greenpeace and the Soil Association suggest that a moratorium is a necessary part of any precautionary approach", but it doesn't agree.

This is unsurprising given that one of the report's principal authors, Dr Sue Ion, holds a senior slot at British Nuclear Fuels and the rest seem to be similarly hardcore pro-technology types.

Indeed, one of the CST's main arguments for research into nanomaterial toxicology is that it would allow "nanoremediation", the use of new nano wonder-substances to clean up previous, old-fashioned environmental disasters.

For instance, it seems that PCB contamination might be neutralised using nanoparticles of iron: but it would clearly make sense to find out whether nano-iron is bad for people first. The report recommends a minimum £5-6m per annum of government funding for this kind of research.

Essentially, the CST's idea seems to be that nanotechnology can't develop and be used without a knowledge of the risks and the likely regulatory framework.

The report's authors reckon that as recently as 2004 the UK was "seen as a world leader in its engagement with nanotechnologies". But the British now risk becoming nano also-rans, well-armed with ideas but no idea whether they're safe.

The CST concludes that "the UK is losing that leading position and falling behind in its engagement with this fast developing field, primarily due to a distinct lack of government activity". ®

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