Watchdogs say stop nanotech, start worldwide dialogue

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Jan 31, 2003 — An advocacy group that helped quash efforts to introduce genetically modified products in Europe, Africa and elsewhere intensified the spotlight on nanotechnology Wednesday with a report recommending a halt to some nanotech activities. Nanotechnology officials and observers said the report raises important questions, but is flawed and its recommendations are misguided.

Titled “The Big Down: Atomtech — Technologies Converging at the Nanoscale” (PDF, 804 kb), the report proposes a shutdown of all research and development of molecular manufacturing and reiterates its call for a moratorium on commercial production of new nanomaterials. The report also suggests creating an international forum for evaluating new technologies and a United Nations-led effort to monitor corporations involved in new technologies and their markets.

The organization’s goal is to open a public dialogue on the safety, usefulness and equitableness of nanotechnology, said Pat Mooney, ETC Group’s executive director. In terms of its recommendations, though, its highest priority is not the moratoriums, but rather the development of an International Convention for the Evaluation of New Technologies (ICENT). An ICENT would give governments a way to gauge the scientific, social and economic effects of all emerging technologies, ETC argues.

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“I do think the ICENT is achievable down the road,” Mooney said. “There is whole gamut of technologies coming up. The logic of it is overwhelming.”

Formerly RAFI, the Canadian-based ETC Group is concerned with the effect of new technologies on rural societies. It identifies itself as one of four organizations serving as watchdogs on nanotechnology, which it argues has the potential to disrupt or destroy developing countries and their economies. The report also stresses nanotechnology’s potential ability to adversely alter the environment and life forms.

The head of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in the United States said the ETC Group’s concerns are important but are already being addressed by his organization and through similar efforts around the world. Nanotech advocates say the advantages it offers society outweigh the risks, which can be minimized.

“We developed nanotechnology after a deliberate process because of the societal implications,” said Mike Roco, who oversees the NNI. The NNI and its international counterparts expect nanotechnology will help improve health and the environment, reduce waste and allow for sustainable development. “There is no proof it will lead to a catastrophe. One has to address the negative but must also look at the total. We found a lot of benefits.”

ETC Group coined the term Atomtechnology, which it defines as “a spectrum of techniques involving the manipulations of molecules, atoms and subatomic particles to produce materials. Atomtech also involves the merging and manipulation of living and nonliving matter to create new and/or hybrid elements and organisms.”

The 80-page report is a collage of footnoted information cobbled from diverse sources, including Small Times, with segments that repeat previously published ETC documents. The footnotes allow readers to verify or further research the topic, Mooney said. Within the text, the ETC Group sprinkles conclusions such as, “When GMOs (genetically modified organisms) meet Atomically Modified Matter, life and living will never be the same.”

Critics say the practice gives the ETC Group’s reports a veneer of authority based on the credibility of the original information, but that information is taken out of context. Kevin Ausman of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University told Small Times in August that ETC Group selectively extracted some of the CBEN researchers’ points, but left out their scientific basis. This is a technique that some consider misleading.

“Ninety percent is real material and then they came up with something that is disconnected,” Roco said. “It’s not from the world of logic.”

“We believe what we produced is constructive,” Mooney said. “People can make their own assessment.”

Mooney said moratoriums need to be imposed on nanomaterials and molecular manufacturing to ensure their safety in the lab as well as among society. But the moratorium could be short-lived, he insisted, if scientists could agree on a safety protocols and government oversight. He said organizations like the United Nations would help ensure compliance worldwide.

A policy analyst familiar with nanotechnology derided the notions. Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law and author of papers on the regulation of nanotechnology, said nanomaterials should be regulated based on their characteristics and not how they are made. In his writing, he argues the research community already exists in a self-regulated environment that functions well.

While nanomaterials exist, molecular manufacturing is a far-off concept. “That’s like calling for a moratorium on faster-than-light travel,” Reynolds said. “No one is doing it anyway.”

Its advocates envision devising an engineered system that manipulates individual atoms and molecules to make molecularly perfect products. Nanotechnology’s opponents see such capabilities running amok, with nanomachines self-replicating into “gray goo” or the man-killing swarms depicted in the new Michael Crichton novel, “Prey.”

Roco emphasized that efforts to facilitate discussions about nanotechnology and its implications should help the field develop responsibly. Mooney also stressed the need for talks and added he is in contact with governmental organizations worldwide.

ETC Group unveiled the report Wednesday at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Mooney is scheduled to discuss nanotechnology with Indian lawmakers in New Delhi in February and European policy makers in June.


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