Risk obsessed

The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering’s report on nanotechnology is too ‘obsessed’ with nanoparticles and does not sufficiently consider other areas of the field.

The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering’s report on nanotechnology is too ‘obsessed’ with nanoparticles and does not sufficiently consider other areas of the field, researchers have claimed.

Published last week, it was commissioned by the UK government to consider areas requiring regulation and to communicate the potential of nanotechnology to the public, but predictably the subsequent newspaper headlines again concentrated on the suggested dangers of the burgeoning field.

The report makes 21 recommendations, which include calls for an independent research group to study the safety risks of nanoparticles, and for the particles to be classed as new substances under UK and EU safety legislation.

Unfortunately nanotechnology is so diverse that blanket regulation may prove impossible. The definition of a nanomaterial varies, and regulatory bodies would need to work together, which is unlikely to happen in the current framework.

Prof Anthony Ryan, ICI professor of physical chemistry at Sheffield University, criticised the report for concentrating on the risks of nanoparticles and failing to address fully other areas of nanotechnology.

These include potential future technologies such as molecular manufacturing, where molecules could be guided into place by a mechanical assembler – the basis for fears of self-replicating robots.

‘The report didn’t really say enough about why we have nothing to fear from nanobots, and mentions it in passing only. I don’t think people are particularly frightened of nanoparticles.’

But the team behind the report said its primary remit was to tighten regulation in current research, not provide a comprehensive study to assuage public concerns. Cambridge University’s Prof Ann Dowling, who led the report, said: ‘It would be wrong to try to gear up regulation of things that might happen in 20 years’ time. We’ve raised concerns about only a small part of nanotechnology, but our belief is that by addressing regulatory gaps people can have the confidence that nanotechnology can develop safely.’

Andrew Briggs, professor of nanomaterials at Oxford University, pointed out that most researchers are already following strict safety procedures, but he backed the recommendations. ‘We shouldn’t let our legitimate and proper concerns about regulation distract our attention,’ he said. ‘We need to take procedures and safety issues very seriously, but within those safe working practices become adventurous both intellectually and technically.’