Nanotech Forum Aims to
Replay of Past Blunders
5 November 2004
Stung by memories of the bruising battles over genetically modified organisms (GMOs), leaders from industry, academia, and environmental organizations met in Houston, Texas, last week to launch a new forum for hashing out concerns over nanotechnology, the nascent field of building materials up from the atomic scale. The rollout of the International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON) had its share of hiccups. Three environmental organizations balked at becoming founding members, charging that ICON is too industry-focused. But two of those groups still took part in the meeting as "guests" and say they will consider joining down the road, a development that most see as an improvement over the GMO fiasco. "All of the parties have a significant amount of goodwill and want to talk. That's not a bad starting point," says Pat Mooney, who heads the ETC Group, an environmental organization based in Ottawa, Canada, that spearheaded the attack against GMOs and has advocated a cautious approach to nanotechnology. "There is a lot of trust that needs to be built from all sides," says Stephen Harper, who heads environmental, health, and safety policy for the computer chip giant Intel in Washington, D.C.
Researchers with Rice
University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology dreamed up
ICON to begin building that trust, write reports to help regulatory agencies,
and possibly even fund original research. But Mooney and other environmentalists
say they were initially wary because ICON's funding comes from industrial members,
and some of the proposed initial research projects seemed aimed at convincing the
public that nanotechnology is safe rather than addressing basic concerns about
the revolutionary technology. At the
Houston meeting, participants avoided potential flash points-such as backing
safety studies or researching whether nanotechnology will benefit developing countries-to
focus initially on a subject virtually everyone could agree on: determining how
to describe various nanosized clumps of matter. Nomenclature is particularly
tricky for nanomaterials because different sized nanoparticles of a material
drastically different properties. Straw-shaped carbon nanotubes, for example, conduct electricity either as semiconductors or metals depending on the pitch at which the atoms wind around the straws. Such complexity bedevils agencies responsible for regulating the handling, manufacture, and release of nanomaterials.
Many nanotechnology experts laud
ICON's early focus on language. "It will be the key to getting the
regulations right. It's exactly what needs to be done," says David Rejeski,
director of the foresight and governance project at the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., another organization working
to build bridges between disparate nanotechnology stakeholders. But with
hundreds of products containing nanomaterials already on the market and the
field expected to balloon to a $1 trillion industry in less than a decade,
Rejeski says, much more needs to be done. Mooney and other environmentalists
urge governments to act quickly to ensure that products don't pose health and
environmental threats and to include countries around the globe in discussions about
how this emerging industry will affect their economies and societies. Other nanotechnology forums are springing up
to tackle those issues. In February, for example, the Rockefeller Foundation is
cosponsoring a meeting in Alexandria, Egypt, called the Global Dialogue on
Nanotechnology and the Poor. Leaders from governments and other organizations
will grapple with problems such as ensuring access to revolutionary technologies
and promoting research that benefits poor people as well as rich-and hope the
cautionary tale of GMOs gives this story a happier ending. -ROBERT F. SERVICE
Green groups baulk at joining nanotechnology talks
International Council on Nanotechnology accused of industry bias.
One of the first efforts to get parties round the table to discuss nanotechnology has got off to a faltering start, after leading environmental groups declined to take part. The International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON) has been set up to drive open discussion about the benefits and pitfalls of the field, which comprises a clutch of technologies involving materials and components on the scale of a billionth of a metre. The council held its first meeting on 28 October at Rice University in Houston, Texas, which has strong research programmes in the implications of nanotechnology. But the three main environmental groups invited to participate said they were not ready to do so, complaining that the council was likely to be biased because it depended on industry funds. Jennifer Sass of the National Resources Defense Council and Scott Walsh of Environmental Defense, both based in Washington DC, and Pat Mooney of the Canadian ETC Group, based in Ottawa, all turned down invitations to join ICON. Walsh and Mooney participated in last week's meeting as guests. Researchers and industrial backers of nanotechnology hope that discussion of its effects will help avoid the public mistrust that has plagued fields such as agricultural biotechnology.
"We welcome anyone who
thinks they have a stake in this discussion," says Kristen Kulinowski,
director for education and public policy at Rice's Center for Biological and
Environmental Nanotechnology, which manages ICON. Kulinowski says the council
discussed how to make its decision-making truly independent of its funding
sources. Sass would prefer the council to be publicly funded. Mooney says he
would join if ICON included more members from the academic world, from trade
unions and from developing countries. But academic members say the current
arrangements are satisfactory. "I'm not concerned about industry
sponsorship," says Günter Oberdörster, a toxicologist at the University of
Rochester in New York, who studies nanoparticles. "I am concerned about
non-governmental organizations possibly not being part of it," he says.
"We should find the answer together, in a transparent process."
William Provine, a council member who tracks nanotechnology applications for
DuPont, the chemicals company based in Wilmington, Delaware, agrees. "We need
to establish a credible group of stakeholders," he says, "and we have
not gotten there, yet."
© 2004 Nature Publishing Group
Nanotech Group's Invitations Declined
Critics Say Effort Glosses Over Risks
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2004; Page A04
A new effort by industry
leaders and others to engender public trust in nanotechnology, the young
science of making invisibly small materials, has run into difficulties on the
eve of its first meeting after environmental and citizen groups declined to
join for now because of doubts the initiative will serve the public interest.
None of the three invited representatives of environmental groups has agreed to join the newly created International Council on Nanotechnology at its inaugural meeting in Houston today. One said yesterday that he had asked that his name be removed from the membership list because the group -- funded almost entirely by industry -- seemed more interested in easing public jitters than in actually doing something about the potential risks of nanotechnology. The early rift is emblematic of the difficulties facing the new science as it strives to gain public acceptance. The field, expected to become a trillion-dollar industry by 2012, promises a host of technological and medical advances. But it has also stirred fears because some of its tiny products appear to be toxic and many are not covered by environmental and occupational health regulations.
Nanoscientists and activists
alike have said they want to avoid a replay of the debacle over genetically
engineered food, widely viewed as a classic case of an emerging science that
squandered an opportunity to gain public trust. But the troubles already facing
nanotech's first efforts at conciliation indicate that the nascent field is
still struggling with its image. "The
trust hurdle is probably the most critical right now," said David Rejeski
of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "There's a lot of work to be done to
get all the players in the room," said Rejeski, who likened the current
state of affairs to a junior high school dance in which everyone is awkwardly
wondering who will be the first to take the floor. "It's kind of a social
experiment." Nanotechnology deals
with products less than 100-billionths of a meter in size -- a few 10,000ths of
the diameter of a human hair. .Some of the materials being created, such as
cages of carbon atoms known as buckyballs, show promise as tools for
environmental cleanup. Others, such as carbon nanotubes, are expected to
revolutionize the electronics industry A few materials are already being used
in medical tests, stain-resistant fabrics and sunscreens.
But the peculiar chemical
and electronic properties exhibited by these materials can cut both ways. Early
research has shown that some manufactured nanoparticles are toxic in mice and
fish. A recent report from Swiss Re, the giant Swiss insurance company,
expressed grave concerns about liability issues that could arise from nanotech
products. And a July report issued by Britain's Royal Society and Royal Academy
of Engineering concluded that some nanoparticles-containing cosmetics and
sunscreens ought to be removed from the market because of health risks.
The council, to be based at
Rice University in Houston, was created to bring together industry, government,
and environmental and social organizations to identify nano-issues before they
become problems and to quickly fund needed research. "We think there is a need to create a new mechanism for
these people to work together," said Kristen Kulinowski, executive
director of Rice's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology and a
co-founder of the group. She added that she hopes citizen groups will overcome
their reluctance. With about $500,000 in industry donations, the council hopes
to answer questions about risk and advise governments on how best to regulate
the new substances. The attempt at
preemptive cooperation drew praise from some who have opted to join.
"It seems to me if we create an organized space for these different interests to find common ground, that bodes well for a much less contentious development for the technology," said Davis Baird, chairman of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and associate director of that university's NanoCenter.
William Provine of DuPont
Co., a major developer of nanotech products, was also upbeat. "There's no
crisis here," he said, referring to current safety concerns. "But we
also want to be respectful and say, 'Not everything is known.' "
But others said they were chary. Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who was invited to join but will not participate for now, said the group's "heart is in the right place" but worried that it "may be heavily influenced by industry because that's where the funding is coming from" Scott Walsh of Environmental Defense in Washington, who will attend to listen but not as a member, expressed similar concerns. And Pat Mooney of the Ottawa-based citizen's organization ETC Group said he had declined to join. "The whole tone of the approach is 'How can we convince society we're nice guys?,' and that's just not going to fly," he said. Mooney was also critical of the group's claim to be "international." "It doesn't cut it to have Mitsubishi from Japan and L'Oreal from France. Two-thirds of the globe is left out in this process," including most of the world's poor, he said. Mooney and others expressed more confidence in a broader effort being organized by the Dillon, Colo.-based Meridian Institute, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and a Canadian public corporation. The Global Dialogue on Nanotechnology and the Poor will focus on environmental and health concerns but especially on nanotech's potential to help developing countries, such as by cleaning up water and making cheap electricity.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company