On 16-17th May a 'Nano Expo' took place at the East Midlands Conference Centre, University of Nottingham. Nanotechnology is hailed as the new technological fix for the world's problems by certain scientists, but there are serious issues with the technology itself and the way it is being developed.
The Nano Expo site says that the event is: "Designed to bring together key industrialists and researchers in the field of micro- and nanotechnology. Leading international speakers will contribute to parallel sessions targeted at both commercial and scientific audiences." There are some of us who are less excited about this new technology and think that such conferences should be protested.
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"delivering environmentally benign material abundance for all by providing universal clean water supplies; atomically engineered food and crops resulting in greater agricultural productivity with less labour requirements; nutritionally enhanced interactive ‘smart’ foods; cheap and powerful energy generation; clean and highly efficient manufacturing; radically improved formulation of drugs, diagnostics and organ replacement; much greater information storage and communication capacities; interactive ‘smart’ appliances; and increased human performance through convergent technologies." (Wikipedia)
All very exciting, I'm sure, but we've been here before with the wonder technologies that are supposed to solve all of our problems, but end up creating new and worse ones. Biotechnology was meant to feed the world's poor and revolutionise medicine. In fact, it made poor farmers poorer and dependent on rich corporations for seed. No doubt the 'white man's burden' this time will prove to be similarly exploitative, as Western corporations are already snapping up all of the patents for nanoparticles.
Then there's the possible risks to human health. According to wikipedia/p>
Smaller particles means that they are more reactive and result in increased free radical production in the body, resulting in "oxidative stress, inflammation, and consequent damage to proteins, membranes and DNA". Nanoparticles can readily enter the human body and potentially cause extensive cell damage (Science). In fact, the potential health and environmental risks are so great that the Royal Society recommended that:
"nanomaterials be regulated as new chemicals, that research laboratories and factories treat nanomaterials "as if they were hazardous", that release of nanomaterials into the environment be avoided as far as possible, and that products containing nanomaterials be subject to new safety testing requirements prior to their commercial release."
Nanomaterials remain effectively unregulated. For commercial reasons perhaps?
Nanotechnology could potentially be huge. According to the APEC Center for Technology Foresight:
"If nanotechnology is going to revolutionise manufacturing, health care, energy supply, communications and probably defence, then it will transform labour and the workplace, the medical system, the transportation and power infrastructures and the military. None of these latter will be changed without significant social disruption."
A big question is, who's going to get to say how these areas are revolutionised. With corporate science and the state governments firmly in charge at the moment they are unlikely to develop new military technologies for anyone's benefit except their own, and we can hardly expect them to give a damn about the environmental and health risks they unleash in the process.
Those who oppose the development of nanotechnology suggest possible outcomes such as:
"destabilising international relations through a growing nano arms race and increased potential for bioweaponry; providing the tools for ubiquitous surveillance, with significant implications for civil liberty; breaking down the barriers between life and non-life through nanobiotechnology, and redefining even what it means to be human." (Wikipedia)
With such possible consequences as these, we should be calling nanotechnologists into question everywhere they go. Events like the Nano Expo with it's assumptions that scientists and government (including Nottingham City Council's 'Science City' visions for our future) can, hand in hand, make decisions about everyone's future on our behalf, need to be challenged. When the dangerous truths about new technologies get in the way of profit and state control, there is usually an effort to keep the public in the dark. We need to do to nanotech what we have done to biotech in the past. Tell them what we think in no uncertain terms.