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Nanotechnology and Nanoscience The Royal Society

Nanotechnology: Civil Society Groups

Nanotechnology industry

The perception from many CS groups is that there is a burgeoning nanotechnology ‘industry’, which is making claims for the transformative powers of nanotechnology. The extent to which there actually exists such an industry was debated at length. For example, if a TV with a 2nm flat screen is produced, and 99.99% of it is made from something else, does this constitute ‘nanotechnology’? There are differing views on how close nanotechnology is to the market place, complicated by the fact that nanotechnology is defined in different ways. One estimate from a working group member was that nanomanufacturing is about 10 years away. However, the view from civil society representatives was that there was either an existing nanotechnology industry or that one was swiftly emerging.

This highlighted one of the main difficulties in discussing nanotechnology as a discrete area – it does not have a well-accepted and fixed definition, nor is it one particular technology but cuts across a range of disciplines. One view which had been suggested to the working group in their evidence-gathering was that the area covered by nanotechnology is just chemistry (for example colloid and polymer science, catalysis) and in that sense is not new. However, a CS representative felt that this view is not borne out in the investment press and that it was reminiscent of the doublespeak surrounding GM crops, which were presented to investors as revolutionary and to the public as merely an extension of conventional breeding. It was highlighted by a CS representative that there is a great deal of rhetoric around nanotechnology as a new industry, as evidenced by the NanoBusiness Alliance and the US National Nanotechnology Initiative, or at least as a convergence of interests across lots of different industries. It was suggested that it was this all-encompassing characteristic of nanotechnology that raised concerns. (Concern, for example, that a company could own a patent on carbon nanotubes which would then be used across pharmaceutical industry, aeronautics etc, which may create a reliance greater than in the case of GM. However, it was noted by a member of the working group that there are lots of area of technology that don’t rely on patents, and that this could be seen as a political question.) It was acknowledged that the fact that a large investment of money and policy time has been devoted to the nanotechnology area raised alarm bells in the civil society groups. The importance and difficulty of separating reality from hype in nanotechnology was supported by all present.

A CS representative suggested that the positive potential of nanotechnology ought to be considered too - nanotechnology may provide some opportunity to disrupt the trend of only rich nations being able to afford and thus control technology. A member of the working group gave the example here of plastic transistors which are a fraction of the cost of conventional ones.

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