Nov. 20, 2002 -- Nanotechnology will best flourish in an environment that is largely self-regulated but includes measured governmental oversight, according to a report released today by a think tank in California.
Emerging technologies of the past, especially biotechnology, offer lessons that could help businesses, researchers and policy-makers acknowledge and address public fears that could stifle growth.
But it is critical that nanotechnology's advocates and those who are concerned about new technology's impact on society and the environment begin discussions now, before ideology and politics come into play, said author Glenn Harlan Reynolds. Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law and a frequent author of articles on regulation of nanotechnology and related legal issues.
He also serves on the board of directors for the Foresight Institute, an educational organization that promotes the responsible development of molecular nanotechnology.
The report, "Forward to the Future: Nanotechnology and Regulatory Policy," was commissioned by the Pacific Research Institute's Center for Technology Studies in San Francisco. It is available for free at the Web site after 1 p.m. EST today. Its release comes at a time when several groups are beginning to voice concerns over nanotechnology's potentially adverse impacts.
"It's always a good idea to talk about these ideas early," Reynolds said, adding that nanotechnology is still young with many aspects that are not well understood. "The disadvantage is we don't know what we're talking about. We worry about things that research (later) shows is not a risk. But it means you can discuss it with less politics and less hysteria."
In his paper, Reynolds presents what he considers the three most likely scenarios for regulating nanotechnology: a complete prohibition, classified status with only the military developing nanotechnologies and a modest amount of regulation complemented by a professional culture that emphasizes responsibility. Reynolds sees the latter as the most conducive to developing nanotechnology's potential to benefit society with the least amount of risk to people and the planet.
He defines nanotechnology as the ability to manipulate atoms and molecules, including "assemblers" that will build products from the bottom up. Criticisms of the concept of robotic assemblers ranges from technical unfeasibility to a potential menace, with the worst case scenario being a "gray goo" of self-replicating nanobots taking over the Earth.
A complete ban on nanotechnology research and development would be unenforceable, Reynolds argues. Restricting nanotechnology's growth would impede progress in other valuable industries, from computer chips to biotechnology, and require a bureaucratic regime that would most likely force nanotech R&D to move underground or overseas.
The military is aware of nanotechnology's potential to make defense systems more precise, more lethal and improve soldier safety. But allowing only the military to develop nanotechnologies would likely lead to less sound technologies, he writes, since they would remain classified and never face the scrutiny of the scientific and technical communities. Such a program also could undermine national security because countries considered a threat could develop technologies unfettered.
Keeping nanotechnology in the civilian sphere is more likely to ensure open analysis of a nanotechnology's quality, worth and safety, Reynolds argues. Professional ethics already impose what Reynolds terms "soft laws" on practitioners that he considers more effective than legal restrictions.
"Self-regulation is easy to discount, but I can tell you it is pretty strong," Reynolds said. "It's the reason we comb our hair and mow the lawn."
Reynolds points to the restraints the biotechnology community imposed on itself in the 1970s as a model for responsible nanotechnology development. Concerns about the safety of DNA research prompted scientists in the early '70s to suspend work until guidelines were in place. The guidelines formed the foundation for regulations by the National Institutes of Health, a key funding source for biotech research. Reynolds said businesses adhere to those regulations.
Further research found the initial fears were exaggerated, he writes, but the process retained the public's trust while allowing research to advance.
Regulations will evolve as the technology matures, Reynolds said. He sees the government playing a role with efforts to prevent accidents and the deliberate misuses of nanotechnology. But he urges future regulators to proceed incrementally. "We should let our knowledge drive our regulation," he said.
In his paper, Reynolds pays less attention to nanomaterials, some of which are already being marketed, or building blocks such as nanotubes, which are under development commercially and the focus of academic and industrial laboratories worldwide. Those pose more familiar risks, he said, while the concept of self-replicating nanotechnologies creates a new potential danger.
Some advocacy groups are spotlighting all aspects of nanotechnology. In a May/June communiqué, the ETC Group urged attendees of the World Summit on Sustainable Development last August to call for a moratorium on the production of nanomaterials. The Science and Environmental Health Network and some European groups suggested applying the Precautionary Principle to nanotech development. The principle, itself a topic of debate, was designed to reduce environmental and health risks by limiting scientific exploration when its impact is in doubt.
Vicki Colvin, director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) at Rice University, agreed with Reynolds' assessment that opening discussions now about regulation was a healthy step for all constituents, from researchers to industry to the public. CBEN studies nanotechnologies that would be beneficial to the environment as well as their potential unintended consequences.
"Regulation will happen," Colvin said. "It is not a question of whether we want it or not. ¿ That's a great reason to think about it now."
Growing interest in nanotechnology -- from increased government funding for research to the formation of a business alliance to a heightened public awareness and hype -- prompted the institute to commission the paper, said Sonia Arrison, director of the Center for Technology Studies. The institute is a free-market think tank that emphasizes policy based on voluntary actions instead of governmental intervention.