Welcome to Nano Reality TV, where the show is mistaken for truth

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Aug. 29, 2003 — More than a thousand deformed genetic mutants gathered in England this July to celebrate the birthday of their technological progenitor, who 25 years and nine months earlier had been cultured like mold in a petri dish.

Meanwhile, parents whose children are born with hereditary diseases like muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis cannot hope for an ultimate cure, yet can take comfort in their government’s decision to protect them from risky research by bolting the door to DNA.

As you might have guessed, those two scenarios are thankfully only nightmares.

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Louise Brown, a perfectly normal 25-year-old, and the million or so other “test-tube babies” born since the first successful in vitro fertilization are blending into society just fine rather than slithering into the black lagoon as predicted by those who would have banned the procedure.

And while cystic fibrosis sufferers still endure their lung-clearing backslaps, and Jerry Lewis keeps clowning and crying for MD every Labor Day, scientists unshackled by blanket research bans are free to poke and prod away at human DNA to understand the genetic roots of these diseases.

Some lawmakers in the United States and Britain had wanted these technologies banned because their implications were so shrouded in the realm of the unknown that the tales of dragons they were told seemed plausible. But while history cannot blame lawmakers for simply living in their times, they can be faulted for bad decisions made in blindness to currently available evidence.

The past few months have raised the curtain on the next piece of policy theater. The ETC Group and Greenpeace began the first act with a masterful dumb show of alchemy and melodramatic cries of: “Beware the unknown, for it will certainly harm you!”

Nanotech industry representatives responded on cue with a curse upon the House of Green. Who’s wearing the white hat and who’s twirling the mustache? Depends on where you’re sitting and the actors’ ability to create illusion.

As we saw in the media nanoswarm that followed Greenpeace’s recent report, it’s easy to deceive the audience with the “nanotech pollutes” line because there is little evidence it does not pollute. This lack of available fact throws scriptwriting responsibilities over to the best manipulators of public opinion, prejudice and fear.

But as the show goes on, a great deal of off-camera work needs to be done by those who know the real world of nanotech. U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., a co-sponsor of nanotech legislation, wrote in the newsletter Nanotechnology Now that “no more than 10 percent of the senators or House members understand what nanoscience-nanotechnology is.”

While we don’t expect lawmakers to be rocket scientists, we do expect them to consult with experts before they make decisions. I doubt that was the case with Caroline Lucas, who represents the British Green Party in the European Parliament. She declared this spring that “thousands of women are acting as unwitting ‘guinea pigs’ for the cosmetics industry every day.”

Lucas is pushing for a ban on all nanotech products despite the fact that the nanoscale materials used by L’Oreal and others are already regulated in England.

Fortunately, there will soon be no excuse for such legislative ignorance. The nanotech advisory boards forming in the U.S. and Britain should educate policymakers about what exactly it is they are being asked to regulate.

Foresight Institute President Christine Peterson says companies that make skin-care products containing nanomaterials should take “a proactive role” in this advisory process. Those are the companies that will be targeted first by policymakers such as Lucas.

Foresight Institute founder Eric Drexler isn’t too concerned about ignorance self-replicating among U.S. regulators. The molecular-machine-based nanotechnology industry he envisions for future generations does not yet exist. “To regulate such things today would be like regulating moon bases after some experiments with rocketry but before launching the first satellite,” he says.

Kevin Ausman, executive director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University, says that existing regulations already cover nanomaterials, so “policymakers, at least in the U.S., will continue to say things along the lines of, ‘It’s hard to regulate an industry until there is an industry to regulate.'”

Meanwhile, the viral spread of nanotech misinformation continues. For example, a talk that Drexler and ETC Group Executive Director Pat Mooney are scheduled to give at an Environmental Grantmakers Association retreat is promoted with this blurb: “Recent studies indicate that nanoscale materials now being commercialized pose potential hazards for human health and the environment.” The “studies” were actually incomplete surveys of inconclusive toxicology reports, commissioned by ETC Group, itself. Even Greenpeace admits that no complete scientific study of the toxicity of nanomaterials has been yet been performed.

The advisory groups have a difficult task ahead. How do you counteract a human tendency to assume the worst about the unknown?

We may have a natural instinct to explore the world, but we also have a deeply ingrained fear that if we enter a place we believe belongs only to God or nature, plagues will surely result. Religious and secular are united in this fear of the coming Nanotech Age, when we are able to manipulate the smallest components of creation.

But the real danger to human progress comes if we mistake that fear for a commandment that we should never try. We’ve been through that before. Looking back centuries later, we called it the Dark Ages.


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