June 17-18, a first intergovernmental dialogue on "Responsible
Research and Development of Nanotechnology" convened
in Washington with representatives from 26 countries.
In his introductory remarks, Mike Roco of the US government's
National Science Foundation explained that the meeting
was dedicated to the examination of broad societal issues
that cannot be addressed by any single country. Roco
asked: "How can we prepare our world for the emergence
reality is that it's too late for governments to suggest
they're being pro-active. Hundreds of nanotech products
are commercially available, countless more are in
the pipeline, and there are no regulations explicitly
targeting nanotechnology anywhere in the world,"
said Pat Mooney, Executive Director of ETC Group."
The US National Science Foundation now predicts that
the global 'nano' market will tip $1 trillion in seven
years. Why is it that governments can look only 3-5
years ahead when they're talking about regulations
and social impacts, but when those same governments
talk about potential revenues they have a 10-20 year
horizon? Remember, it takes at least 8 years to negotiate
multilateral agreements. At this point, diplomats
are already way behind."
government representatives who met earlier this month
are planning to convene again, possibly before the
end of 2004. Before they do they must consider the
political realities. Future intergovernmental discussions
must be inclusive, transparent and take place under
the auspices of the United Nations. A meeting of technical
experts from 26 countries is not adequate to address
the interests of all countries - whether engaged in
or affected by nanotech activities. Although governments
in Washington did place the problem/potential for
the global South on their agenda, only the 'Big South'
(Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Korea, Mexico and
South Africa) attended.
the time governments get around to recognizing the
need for a broad societal discussion, it means they're
already in the position of playing catch-up, clean-up
- or worse, cover-up," insists Silvia Ribeiro
of ETC Group's Mexico office. "Of course we can't
leave it up to governments - civil society and people's
movements must first be fully engaged in debates about
the role of science and technology in society,"
to the meeting's agenda,(2) attendees tackled issues
associated with nanotech R&D in four parallel
breakout groups: "the environment," "human
health and safety," "socio-economic and
ethical issues" and "nanotechnology in developing
an impressive scope for a session lasting only an
hour and forty-five minutes," notes Kathy Jo
Wetter, ETC Group researcher. "But it's an important
first step for national governments to recognize that
nanotech's global socio-economic, health and environmental
impacts must be addressed."
the June meeting included discussion of broad societal
issues, many critical areas urgently require more
thorough examination and specific action. These include:
Convergence and technology cartels: Nanotechnology
refers to a spectrum of new technologies involving
the manipulation of matter at the scale of atoms and
molecules - the nano-scale (a nanometer is one-billionth
of a meter). The real power of nano-scale science
is the convergence of technologies that can be integrated
on the molecular playing field - including biotechnology,
cognitive sciences, informatics, robotics, etc. Control
and manipulation of matter at the nano-scale is poised
to become the operative platform for corporate control
of industrial manufacturing, food, agriculture and
health in the 21st century. The world's largest companies
across all industry sectors are investing in nanotech
R&D - from military, mining and manufacturing
to energy and electronics, to pharmaceuticals, food
processing and chemicals. Society and governments
must be prepared to address the implications of corporate
technology cartels that could gain unprecedented control
over converging technologies and their products.
The privatization of the fundamental building blocks
of matter: In the US and many OECD nations, intellectual
property laws evolved rapidly over the past quarter
century to allow for the patenting of all life forms
- plants, animals, microorganisms and human DNA. With
the rise of nano-scale technologies, will we see the
same kinds of sweeping patent claims on products and
processes related to molecular level manufacturing?
Nanotechnology offers new opportunities for monopoly
control - not just over life forms - but over the
building blocks of the entire natural world. A recent
front-page article in the Wall St. Journal reports
on the "intensifying race" to file nanotech
patent applications, citing one patent attorney who's
experiencing dij` vu: "It's like biotech on steroids,"
Charles Wieland told the Wall St. Journal.(3) In the
US alone, nanotech patents awarded annually have tripled
since 1996.(4) Companies like California-based NanoSys
have neither products nor profits, but with a portfolio
of over 200 nanotech patents, the company expects
its initial public offering to fetch over $500 million
in stock sales.(5) The meeting in Washington focused
primarily on the need to facilitate intellectual property
as a means of promoting nanotech, rather than on preventing
abuses of exclusive monopoly patents or protecting
the interests of developing nations. Governments must
monitor current trends in nanotech patents and take
steps to prevent technology "platform" monopolies.
Human Rights: Even allowing for hyperbole, nanotech's
impact on the global economy will be no less than
profound. Whatever the long-term potential benefits,
nanotech will bring economic turbulence - as every
technology wave does - destabilizing labour and society.
Nano-scale technologies will change the way we manufacture
goods, produce food, energy and medicine. Commodity
markets will be turned upside down, threatening the
poorest and most vulnerable workers who do not have
the economic flexibility to respond to a sudden demand
for new technical skills and/or different raw materials.
As nanotechnology converges with other powerful technologies
such as biotechnology and information technologies
to "improve human performance" - in the
words of the US government - society must grasp what
it means to be human, practically, legally and ethically.
At the same time, society will have to address an
ever-widening gulf between those "improved"
through technological convergence and those who remain
"unimproved," either by choice or lack of
choice. As convergence helps shift our concept of
what is "normal," we'll all be playing catch-up
or we'll be left behind. Whatever benefits convergence
could bring, they will be neither cheap nor equitably
distributed. What will happen to the unimproved?
War and defense in the age of nanotech: Experts predict
that nanotechnology will change the way wars are fought
more than the invention of gunpowder.(6) Precise and
sophisticated molecular-level manipulations will produce
stronger, lighter materials, more precise and pervasive
sensors and faster, smaller and more energy-efficient
computers. These products are being developed simultaneously
for civilian and military uses. DuPont, a founding
partner of the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies
in the US, predicts that some of the materials being
developed for soldiers will be available on the commercial
market first.(7) In addition to these dual-purpose
products, nanotech, and its convergence with biotech,
will lead to the development of chemical and biological
weapons that are more invasive, harder to detect and
virtually impossible to combat. Convergence with cognitive
sciences will produce soldiers with "enhanced"
bodies and brains. Governments must act quickly and
cooperatively to address the new realities of nano-age
Nano-Governance Forward: Separately and collectively,
governments need to evaluate, monitor and regulate
the impact of nano-scale technologies on health and
the environment; socio-economic infrastructure; human
rights (especially marginalized people, including
the disabled); defense and trade. Governments must
act now or they risk losing all credibility in their
capacity to oversee the introduction of new technologies.
Group believes that governments should look beyond
the pageant of individual new technologies marching
forward and establish a United Nations mechanism to
monitor all new technologies - an International Convention
for the Evaluation of New Technologies (ICENT).
Mooney, ETC Group (Canada) firstname.lastname@example.org
Hope Shand and Kathy Jo Wetter, ETC Group (USA) email@example.com
firstname.lastname@example.org tel: 919 960-5223
Silvia Ribeiro, ETC Group (Mexico) email@example.com:
52 55 55 632 664
Jim Thomas, ETC Group (UK) firstname.lastname@example.org: 44 (0)7752
Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration,
formerly RAFI, is an international civil society organization
headquartered in Canada. The ETC Group is dedicated
to the advancement of cultural and ecological diversity
and human rights. www.etcgroup.org. The ETC Group
is also a member of the Community Biodiversity Development
and Conservation Programme (CBDC). The CBDC is a collaborative
experimental initiative involving civil society organizations
and public research institutions in 14 countries.
The CBDC is dedicated to the exploration of community-directed
programmes to strengthen the conservation and enhancement
of agricultural biodiversity. The CBDC website is
Note: Over the next 12 months,
ETC Group will release a series of Communiquis on
the socio-economic impacts of nanotech. Our next Communiqui
will provide an update on the growing recognition
for the need to regulate the technology and the major
health and safety issues.
Group headquarters is moving to Ottawa as of July
1 Nicholas Street, Suite 200 B
Ottawa, Ontario K1N 7B7
Email addresses will not change.
to have your say...email Nano