Nanotechnology: a slippery debate

Scientists are unlikely to turn the world into 'grey goo' - but that hasn't stopped the scaremongers.

Joe Kaplinsky

Topics Politics

According to newspaper reports, Prince Charles is worried that scientists risk turning the world into ‘grey goo’ (1).

This latest fretting has been prompted by a branch of science called nanotechnology. Charles’ fears have rightly been ridiculed as absurd, but he is not alone in expressing such concerns. They are part of a wider anti-technology agenda promoted by environmentalists.

The aim of nanotechnology is to manipulate molecules atom by atom, treating them like mechanical devices with gears, wheels, levers, hooks, pivots, locks and keys. Since all the variety we see around us is just a product of different arrangements of a few types of atom, nanotech has been hyped as a potentially limitless miracle technology. In typical style Prince Charles has let it be known that he is ‘privately’ concerned about the risks of such a powerful technology, and has summoned advisers to his home at Highgrove to discuss the threat.

For a long time there have been wild claims about the capabilities of nanotechnology which bear no relation to the present state of science. They have been entertained mostly by the sort of people who think investing in cryonics is a sensible way to achieve immortality. Indeed, it was nanotechnology’s boosters who, getting carried away with its potential power to disassemble all the matter on Earth into its atomic components, first raised the spectre of out-of-control nanobots turning the world to ‘grey goo’.

More recently, something different has happened. Science has not realised the nanotech fantasies, but many scientists have taken to labelling their work nanotechnology. In many areas of physics and chemistry it is hard to find cutting-edge work that doesn’t carry the fashionable ‘nanotechnology’ tag.

There is perhaps some basis for the fad, as areas of technology ranging from solid state physics to genetic engineering have been learning how to manipulate matter more precisely at the atomic level. But these important developments are a far cry from creating potentially world destroying ‘nanoassemblers’. Into the confusion between real science and ‘grey goo’ have stepped environmental campaigners.

After Charles’ intervention scientists have provided some more sober perspective. Mark Welland, professor of nanotechnology at Cambridge, described Charles’ scenario as ‘from where I am sitting now, about as viable as time travel’ (2). Even Eric Drexler, who coined the term nanotechnology and is widely criticised for overhyping its potential, told New Scientist magazine that ‘these days nanotechnology is more a marketing term than a field and you can’t do regulation based on marketing terms’ (3).

So Charles is nutty as a fruit bat, and the papers are on the look out for a good scare story. No change there. But it’s worth asking where His Royal Highness got to hear about the perils of nanotechnology and grey goo. It wasn’t by talking to his plants.

For the last year, various environmental campaign groups on the look out for the next big thing have been developing nanotechnology as a new target. With childlike simplicity that would make any spin doctor proud, they have been hammering home the message that nanotechnology is ‘the next GM’.

But, as chemistry professor Sir Harry Kroto sensibly put it, in practice nanotechnology is just another name for chemistry. So an anti-nanotech crusade has the potential to take forward the longstanding green campaign against chemicals. Whether it will wash with the public remains to be seen.

By playing on the confusion between the more crazy nanotechnological fantasies and cutting edge science, the greens are aiming to attack a wide range of technological developments. A key report, ‘The Big Down’, published by the ETC group (4) earlier this year, lumps a wide range of present day sciences together with futuristic scare stories.

The report cites examples like paints, catalysts and components of disk drives to back up an estimate of over 500 dedicated nanotech businesses already in existence, and a present day market of $45billion for nanotech products (5). But they also, like Charles, raise the problem of ‘grey goo’. To doubters they say that biotechnology was dismissed in the 1980s as more hype than reality, but has now been realised.

The campaign against nanotechnology, like other green campaigns, is being built on the twin themes of unknown risk and corporate greed. By making use of public sensitivity to these issues, environmentalists claim that their demand for regulation represents the public. In the case of nanotechnology, for the most part the public has never heard of it. So instead the claim is that regulation is needed to pre-empt public outcry.

In their paper ‘”Mind the Gap”: Science and Ethics in Nanotechnology’, bioethicists Anisa Mnyusiwalla, Abdallah Daar and Peter Singer show that they know their way to the government’s heart. ‘The call by ETC for a moratorium on deployment of nanomaterials should be a wake-up call for NT [nanotechnology]. The only way to avoid such a moratorium is to immediately close the gap between the science and ethics of NT’, they write (6). They propose, citing a UK government White Paper, that ‘the most pressing issue in science is public involvement’ and remedying this is the way to placate the critics of nanotech.

This will appeal to a government that is keen to avoid difficulties for industry and always on the look out for new ways to connect with ‘the public’. But far from science running ahead of ethics, many scientists who should know better are already taking the supposed threat from nanotechnology far too seriously.

The real lesson to be learned from the GM debate is that the demand for public ‘involvement’ is the most dangerous element. None of the supposed problems raised in the biotech debate were either substantial or specific to biotechnology. Rather, they expressed more a disenchantment with modern life. But instead of recognising and dealing with these wider concerns, too many supporters of innovation took the criticisms seriously as ‘ethical problems’.

As a consequence, scientists are distracted into researching and debating mythical risks, and there is an elevation of the absurd concerns of green campaigners who present themselves as speaking on behalf of the public. Instead of phoney public involvement in the fears about new technologies, we need a serious debate about how best to take science forward.

Read on:

Replicating concerns, by Jeremy Hazlehurst

(1) Charles fears science could kill life on earth, Scotland on Sunday, 27 April 2003

(2) Brave new world or miniature menace? Why Charles fears grey goo nightmare, Guardian, 29 April 2003

(3) Halting nanotech research ‘illogical’, says pioneer, New Scientist, 29 April 2003

(4) See the ETC group (the action group on erosion, technology and concentration, formerly known as RAFI)

(5) The Big Down is available from the ETC group website

(6) See ‘Mind the Gap’: Science and Ethics in Nanotechnology, Nanotechnology 14 (2003), R9-R13, pR12

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Topics Politics


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