Any new technology brings both risks
and benefits, and with them, public concern as well
as demand. Scientists and policy-makers need to address
public fears if they wish to keep supporting European
research in such areas. The EU project NanoBio-Raise
aims to help avoid the polarised debate surrounding
genetic modification (GM) when it comes to the new
applications made possible by the convergence of
nano- and bio-technologies.
Project coordinator Dr David Bennett, based in Delft, the Netherlands, emphasises
that the two cases are quite different: 'nanotechnology is really a combination
of distinct technologies and sciences; in this it is a very different field
from GM'. Indeed, he says that nanotechnologies today, especially nanobiotechnologies,
are 'nowhere near as advanced as GM was in the early 1990s'.
Where 'nanotech', the science of the very small, meets 'biotech', based on
new understanding of genetics, researchers are able to work with the fundamental
building blocks of life itself. The techniques concerned, which include applications
that sometimes also fall under the heading 'nanomedicine', have huge potential.
They can range from 'labs-on-a-chip' that allow the kind of small-scale, high-throughput
chemical analyses that would make sophisticated DNA tests affordable for all,
to 'targeted devices' or 'non-viral vectors', which are tiny objects able to
analyse or deliver treatment to specific human body cells.
At the same time, as with any new technology with such assumed commercial potential,
there is a lot of hype around the field, warns Dr Bennett. 'It is still not
possible to say what will work, be realistic or be commercially viable,' he
This is not the only cause for caution, since applications like affordable
DNA tests or delivery of gene therapy to specific cells also raise ethical
concerns and public fears. The idea of NanoBio-Raise is to identify such issues
early, make recommendations on the limits to public acceptance and advise on
how public concerns could be addressed.
Fears of nanotechnology becoming out of control, the so called 'grey goo' scenario
popularised by the novel 'Prey', when combined with reactions to new biotechnology
such as gene therapy, would seem to be a potent mix, recognises Dr Bennett.
He emphasises the need to learn the lessons of the GM debate and engage with
all viewpoints, including environmental campaigners. A lack of public support
will surely affect funding, potentially leading to Europe losing its scientific
expertise in even the uncontroversial areas of this field, he warns.
A panel on nanotechnology at the Communicating European Research conference
in November 2005 contrasted the experience of negative public reactions against
GMOs with the general acceptance of mobile phone technology despite suspicions
of health risks; what could be perhaps be termed the 'GM story' versus the
'GSM story'. Speaking on the panel, Dr Bennett emphasised the importance of
learning the lessons of the GM debate and that researchers should work closely
with politicians, activists, the media and the public from very early on in
a technology's development.
The project has assembled a panel of the leading ethicists in this area, Dr
Bennett explains, including Professor George Khushf of the University of South
Carolina and Professor Sir Brian Heap of Cambridge University, UK. This steering
group will then work with the project partners, from Belgium, Denmark, Germany,
the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK, to guide the project's activities.
These kick off with a 'horizon scanning' workshop involving ethicists, researchers,
communications professionals and media. This will be followed by a series of
public opinion focus groups to identify social and ethical issues.
In these ways NanoBio-Raise will build on the public consultation already carried
out by NanoForum. The project will also liaise with other EU projects carrying
out scientific research in this field, such as Nano2Life, and those engaged
in public consultation, such as NanoDialogue and Nanologue.
Some of the project outputs should include briefing materials on ethical issues
for researchers, MEPs and media, as well as training for scientists on communicating,
involving and engaging with the public. The conclusions of the two-year project
should influence scientists themselves, and help to inform research in this
area under the next framework programme (FP7), as well as the European NanoMedicine
technology platform and the EU's strategy and action plan for nanotechnology.
For further information on NanoBio-Raise,
please see the project website:
Further information on EU support for nanotechnologies (including the NanoMedicine
technology platform) is available at the following web addresses:
Details of EU activities on the interaction between science and society can
be found at: