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Size matters. Public opinion doesn’t

John Hepburn is the Genetic Engineering campaign co-ordinator with Greenpeace Australia Pacific. He has also been involved in launching a website about nanotechnology, a rapidly growing industry which is potentially far more important and impacting than GE and far less understood or publically discussed. It doesn't help that it sounds like wild science fiction and that the modern professional journalist has little chance understanding it, let alone informing us about it. John's last piece on Webdiary, Questioning nanotechnology, is an excellent backgrounder. The following article first appeared in the Canberra Times today. Thankyou John for submitting it to Webdiary as well.

by John Hepburn

The release last month of a Federal Government discussion paper on the development of a national nanotechnology strategy created ‘nano ripples’ throughout the community – so small as to be imperceptible to the human eye.

Nanotechnology is being heralded as the next industrial revolution, redefining life as we know it, but with only one month for public comment, the development of a national strategy to manage the most powerful and transformative technology in human history will involve less public participation than a development application to retrofit your local pub. Given the stakes, it is high time that we sat up and started paying attention to the way this technology is set to reshape our world – and in whose interests.

The release of the discussion paper coincided with the first ever recall of a nanotechnology product. In Germany, there were 39 cases of serious respiratory problems and six people were hospitalised in late March after using the nanotech bathroom cleaner "Magic Nano". While it is not yet clear if nanotechnology is to blamefor these health problems, the important point is that no government anywhere regulates nano-scale materials if the same chemical substance has been vetted at the macro-scale. Yet it is precisely because nano materials behave differently to their macro-scale counterparts that they are attracting so much investment and research interest.

Nanoparticles are generally understood to be particles below 100 nano metres in size (about one eighty thousandth of the width of a human hair) that take advantage of property changes that occur at the nano-scale. Nano-scale materials may be more reactive, have different optical, magnetic and electric properties, and be much stronger or more toxic than their larger scale counterparts. For example, aluminum oxide - used in dentistry because of its inertness - can spontaneously explode at the nano- scale and is currently being tested as a potential rocket fuel.

There are a wide range of concerns with nanotechnology, not least of which is the issue of nanotoxicity. The defense systems of the human body are generally not designed to deal with such small particles. In general, nanoparticles of 70 nanometres can enter the lungs, a 50 nmparticle can enter cells and a 30 nm particle can pass through theblood / brain barrier.

In response to concerns over health and environmental safety, the Royal Society in the United Kingdom released a report in 2004 with a series of wide ranging recommendations. They recommend that “Until more is known about the environmental impacts of nanoparticles and nanotubes, their release into the environment should be avoided as far as possible”; and that “Ingredients in the form of nanoparticles undergo a full safety assessment before they are permitted for use in products”.

The problem is that the regulators are not listening. As the scientific evidence of nano hazards continues to mount, so does the number of products containing nanoparticles that are already on the shelves – from sunscreens to cosmetics, car parts and even food.

Beyond the immediate health and environmental risks, the more complex and far-reaching implications of nanotechnology are a little further up the development pipeline. Molecular manufacturing techniques for putting together products atom-by-atom and the merging of non-living nano-materials and living organisms have the power to literally re-make our world from the atom up, and to fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world.

However, readers of the discussion paper issued by the Australian Government’s National Nanotechnology Taskforce would be none the wiser about such issues. The aim of the paper seems to be to reassure the reader that nanotechnology isn’t really new and certainly isn’t anything to worry about. The speculative benefits of nanotechnology are pronounced with certainty from on high, while questions of risk, and even known hazards are heavily qualified and the waters muddied.

It is clear that there is an urgent and growing regulatory gap, where nano product development is being fast-tracked at the expense of environmental health and safety. If recommendations from the Royal Society, one of the world’s most conservative and well-respected scientific bodies haven’t triggered a regulatory response, it is unclear what will. Perhaps the nanotechnology industry is waiting for the same kind of consumer and environmental backlash that emerged over genetically engineered foods?

The transformative power of the new nanotechnologies signals that it is time for us to take the democratisation of science seriously. Over the past 200 years, scientists have altered our world as much, if not more than elected officials, yet they are accountable to nobody save the corporations that increasingly fund them. We need a new way of thinking about science and technology that allows the development of technology to be shaped by the needs of the community and the environment — not the other way around. Just as scientists are exploring uncharted territory through the emerging nanotechnologies, so must we also explore uncharted territory in terms of how these technologies are managed — and crucially, in whose interests. The development of a nanotechnology strategy for Australia deserves far more public involvement and scrutiny than it is currently being given.

To make a submission to the Nanotechnology Taskforce, visit: http://www.industry.gov.au/content/itrinternet/cmscontent.cfm?objectID=39AF8FB8-D905-CA01-D107FA7029AEDD21#Invitation.


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further off topic

G'day Roger; thanks for the info.

Found on the net:

... But he insisted that, as a Bernese, he probably was slow. "It's the nature of the beast," he said. "We're still mountain people, really. We take our time, thinking. We don't talk fast" - which was what most of the jokes seemed to rely on.

"What's this?" Ron said. "Bang!" A long pause. "Bang!" Another one, longer. "Bang!" Pause. "Bang!" Pause.

"I don't know: what?"

"A Bernese machine gun."

Jokes about Bernese lightning[?] followed, and about why you should never tell a Bernese a joke on Friday (he'll get it Sunday morning, in church, and laugh out loud).

slightly off topic!

Roger, your, 'I thought I was the dumb one,' brought to mind Jakarta, late 60's. I was on a bus, going into an area I didn’t know to talk to a girls English class in a school for the more well off. Beside me was a little old man who told me  he had no education. In the general conversation it turned  out he spoke whatever lingo they spoke on  his home island, Dutch, French, Basha Indonesian and English. I felt a total fraud!

democratisation of science

I am fascinated by the idea of "the democratisation of science." Can anyone elaborate on what that might mean in practice, or how such a thing might be pursued by an active lobby?

The motives behind such a concept, with nuclear, genetic and now nano technologies all positing serious ethical and political as well as practical problems, are clear enough. The danger of the idea perhaps - and I am just thinking aloud here - is that it could be, if badly concieved, as debilitating for free scientific enquiry as totalitarianism.

Perhaps a preliminary principle is that the scientist should be as unfettered as possible, whilst the technologist and industrialist should be somehow exposed to the scrutiny of the politic.

The precautionary principle[1]

G'day John Hepburn.

In the end we're all dead, but is it really all that smart to speed things up, mostly just for the sake of a few lousy fistfuls of fast bucks?

That's what it seems like, to me. IMHO, it doesn't make great sense rushing new technology to market on the hyped hope of making some moolah, heedless of any as yet undiscovered costs - to us, we the people. Now, I'm no luddite, using such things as auty-mobiles on an almost daily basis, for example, and even occasionally flying in those wondrous new-fangled winged alu-tubes. But I'm not too keen on prematurely dying a miserable death from bowel cancer, say - caused, for example, by some "Magic Nano" bathroom cleaner, or coming to us soon some "Magic Nano" food 'additive'?

In another place, the question was posed: what are goverments for? One answer could be: to do the (responsible!) things 'private enterprise' can't - or won't - do, mostly because there is nothing - or not much, and certainly no 'fast buck' in it for them.

(The actress and the bishop are sitting on a beach. "What's in it for me?" he enquires. She: "Sand.")

The 'pushed paradigm' has it, that the US are 'world leaders'. OK, but in what? Well, for one thing, with only 5% of the world's population, they consume about 25% of (currently) available resources. And, they are 'world leaders', or so I've heard it is said, in consumption of GM foods. How are they travelling?

1. Obesity. Yeah. They are (an' we too). They even lie about it: "But when Ezzati and his colleagues looked at individual states, they found huge disparities. In Texas, for example, estimates corrected for inaccurate self-reporting suggest that 30% of men and 37% of women were obese in 2000. By comparison, self-reported figures from the BRFSS of the same year suggest that between 18% and 24 % of men and women were obese. A similar discrepancy was found in the 1990 data." [US states grossly underestimate levels of obesity] Texas, hmmm? Quel surprise. But OK, so far 'fat liars'.

2. Freedom. Oh yeah. 'They' (the bad guys, mostly towel-headed Jihadis) hate us for them. "PEOPLE who lead unhealthy lifestyles know perfectly well what they should do to stay healthy, they just refuse to follow doctors' orders, a Gallup poll commissioned by the American Academy of Family Physicians suggests." [Wilful slobbery] Now we've got wilful fat liars (in denial?)

So far, so little. Whether it's GM® corn-syrup on their super-stack of pancakes, or GM® soy in their double-lattes, they might be fat'n happy.

3. But healthy? Nope. "While wealthy Americans enjoy better health than their poorer fellow citizens, this high status fails to confer health benefits to match even the lowliest of their trans-Atlantic cousins. The health of the richest people in the US is as poor as the worst educated, lowest paid among the English." [Americans 'sicker' than their English counterparts]

4. Diet? Perhaps. "He speculates that dietary differences - and in particular greater consumption of fast-food - could perhaps explain why 31% of Americans in that age group are obese, compared to just 23% of their English counterparts. Possibly more stressful and sedentary lifestyles might also make Americans less healthy, ..." [ibid.]

All just speculation. Whether it's GM®-, fast- or just wilful over-consumption of food, it's clearly not the best way forward. Rather than anything goes in Hollywood Madison Ave Ayn Rand Land, we ort'a be eating only natural ingredients, govt enforced - like the reinheits Gebot - or at least have the choice, clearly labelled.

It's just no bloody use calling us a 'clever country' when we're obviously far from, or claiming 'world's best practise' when we ignore so much thereof. The longer you stick your head in the sand, the harder might your arse be kicked.


PS to Roger Fedyk: Exactly where (village, town) in Bern (biggest Canton)? Just a hobby of mine. Any 'insider info'? For example, I heard that the Bernese were considered 'slow', how could that square with your 'looking down'?


[1] The precautionary principle, a phrase first used in English circa 1988, is the ethical theory that if the consequences of an action, especially concerning the use of technology, are unknown but are judged by some scientists to have a high risk of being negative from an ethical point of view, then it is better not to carry out the action rather than risk the uncertain, but possibly very negative, consequences. [wiki]

Thanks And Info

David, many thanks for the reference.

Phil, Almendingen bei Thun is about 24km from Berne where I worked. Cantonal rivalry is intense though not hostile. Lots of jokes like the following "A Zuricher finds a monkey in the Bundesplatz in Berne. He goes to policeman and asks "What should I do?". The policeman replies "Take it to the Tierpark (zoo)". The next day the policemen see the Zuricher again and he still has the monkey. "Hey, I thought I told you to take the monkey to the Tierpark" says the policeman. "I did" says the Zuricher "But today he wants to go to the movies".

You can substitute the cantonal origin anyway you like. Of course it does not help when one of the German words for "stupid" is "albern".

The Berner Oberland contains the Gateway to the Alps through Thun and Interlaken which was why I used "looking down". Actually its quite flat. There is a valley floor that runs all the way from Zurich to Berne and on through Thun/Interlaken. Beautiful place. "Slow" is not a description that I would use (because I'm prejudiced). Most of the people I worked with spoke four languages, English, French, German and Italian. I thought I was the dumb one.

No Profile

While certain science advances have low profiles, it is clear to me as an engineer by training and vitally interested in cosmology and other macro science by personal choice that nanotechnology has no profile.

Either research into nano-scale technologies is very new and immature or there is a concerted effort to keep things below the radar.


Roger, try NewScientistTech

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