Dr Mihail C. Roco
Senior Adviser for Nanotechnology, National Science Foundation (NSF)
Chair US Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology (NSTC’s NSET)

This evidence was taken at a meeting of the working group on December 8th 2003 and was written up by the secretariat. It has been approved by Dr Roco.

Overview

Dr Roco gave a short presentation to the Working Group describing the National Nanotechnology Initiative and some of social and environmental aspects.

The National Nanotechnology Initiative has been proposed in the USA in March 1999 and running since October 2000. It had considered societal implications of nanotechnology from the outset and had set goals in the areas of improving knowledge base (better comprehension of nature, life), manufacturing at the nanoscale, improved healthcare and sustainability. It also made a few estimations using industry input, including that the worldwide market for nanotechnology products would grow to $1 trillion/year by 2015.

In general, nanotechnology will develop where the positive implications would outweigh the risks. In assessing the risks, it was felt that both potential releases of nanoparticles from the existing and new technologies, and mitigation of nanoparticles generated by combustion, welding and mining, should be considered. Dr Roco indicated that more funding was being directed towards understanding the societal impacts of nanotechnology since 2000. Approximately 10% of funding went towards projects with environmental implications, societal and educational consequences of nanotechnology rather than pure science.

Rates of progress in nanotechnology have been fast and the National Nanotechnology Initiative will revise in 2004 the timescales and goals on the 10 year timeframe.

Evidence

It appeared that the media in the UK had become fixed on the “Drexlerian” view of nanobots and gray goo, but this was less pronounced in the US. Asked why this might be, Dr Roco felt that the US press had taken this view in 1999/2000, but a very active debate amongst scientists had shown those nanobots of few nanometers with unlimited capabilities of multiplication and assembling to be impossible. Also, in 1998/2000, the interagency group prepared five documents defining a vision for nanotechnology in ten areas of relevance, an international overview, a brochure for the public, a societal implication report, and a plan for the US government investment (all on www.nano.gov and www.nsf.gov/nano). These documents provided reference answers to the public and media. The issue was coming to the fore again though, as new people were becoming subject to the main protagonists’ influence. He commented that the media tend to follow extreme points of view that make good “news”, and this may be compounded by sufficient science understanding among a fraction of the media writers. However, in 2003, there were some 40,000 researchers in the US working in nanotechnology or related fields, so the voice of science and common sense is growing.

Dr Roco observed that many of the NGOs involved in the field of nanotechnology since 2002 had evolved from the ones that were active in the GMO debate and that finding that they had campaign money available after GMOs, had decided that nanotechnology would be the next big issue to tackle even if the basics and spectrum of relevance are different.

In dealing with the NGOs, Dr Roco felt that all had something useful to say and that it was important to respond properly to all of their concerns.

The overall view in the media of nanotechnology in the US appeared to be that nanotechnology offered more advantages than disadvantages, and nanoscience is a natural step towards advancing scientific and medical understanding. Science fiction views had created an image of catastrophic ends. But because no had offered a reason to think that such consquences were plausible, or even possible, in real ilfe, the positive benefits were still holding sway.

It was noted that the public and governments have slightly different reactions to risk in Europe and the US. It is clear that both are sensitive to risk. However, the debate and societal implications meetings on nanotechnology started earlier in US, at the same time with the NNI research. The conclusion of a NSF workshop on ultrafine particles held in 1990 was that the combustion generated nanoparticles is the leading health hazard, and this seems to remain true. Also, Dr Roco felt that the US interpretation included an evaluation of the impact of not doing something balanced against the potential harm of doing it in the first place. Hence the lack of a potential medical advance and of extending the limits of sustainable development is balanced against the theoretical risks of the technology being used in the first place. He commented that this interpretation was even stronger in the Far East. He also discussed the scale of the risks involved: Nanotechnology has implications in many areas at a level and reach comparable with information technology and genome programmes.

Dr Roco believed that many of the positive benefits that would arise from nanotechnology in short term would be in the form of small but significant improvements to existing products with nanotechnology becoming important in every area of new products. As an example of how this might happen, Dr Roco stated that a large aeronautical company believed that nanotechnology of one sort or another would be incorporated in every aspect of their business by 2015. However, economic need would be the main driver for these incremental product improvements. Some product improvement may also come from environmental concerns, such as the use of silica rather than carbon black in tyre manufacture to reduce disposal costs.

It was thought the medical advances would be important as well, with a number of novel uses for nanoparticles in imaging and treatment. Dr Roco stated that the NNI had stated aims of improving detection and treatment of cancer in the first year of occurrence using nanotechnology. A large program is under way at the National Cancer Institute in US involving a nanotechnology strategic plan. Some of the working group commented that these aims might be over hyping the potential impact of nanotechnology with the public. Dr Roco underlined the difference between a visionary medical program based on recent breakthroughs and unfounded science fiction. Without such visionary programs, nanotechnology may not develop at its potential, and even minor negative implications may justify inaction.

Health and Environment

Dr Roco stated that the NNI was funding work at several centres looking at issues such as filtration of water and air and cleaning soils. An important aspect of this work was measurement as well as cleanup. It had long been known that many nanoparticles were present in air, but there was still a requirement for fundamental work into remediation.

Asked if the toxilogical studies should be done in the same centres as the technology was being developed, Dr Roco felt that this sort of collaboration was good but added that there was dedicated toxilogical work being carried out at separate centres as well. All research centres had an obligation to look into these issues, but on the whole, Dr Roco felt that it was better to not over regulate these areas before research had been carried out. Over regulation would lead to underdevelopment of key technologies.

The Science Budget

Dr Roco explained to the working group how the science budget in the US worked. He stressed that social sciences had been involved in the nanotech science budget from the very outset.

As recognition of public and scientific community positions, the US Congress has passed the “21st Century Nanotechnology R&D Act” unanimously in the Senate and by 412 votes to 13 in the Congress. Dr Roco stressed that the high level political support for nanotechnology was as important as recognition of the importance of nanotechnology to society, and the research funding which flowed from the Act.

Ethical Issues

Dr Roco was asked if he saw any ethical issues that would need to be addressed in the “Enhancing Human Intelligence” programme. Dr Roco explained that the Congressional Act does not require a specific programme, but it requires studying the potential implications of nanoscale science and engineering by considering possible advances in understanding of brain, learning and cognitive processes. This is an anticipatory study to address in advance potential implications on human development. As such the proposed study work was visionary rather than an encouragement to develop specific technologies and was therefore less of an ethical issue.

Asked how he would react if it were to be established that C60, for example, was highly toxic, Dr Roco felt that the most important issue was that the science needs to be done before any regulations are made. NSF had five research and education program announcements that included environmental aspects of nanotechnology since July 2000, and EPA had two program announcements since 2002. EC has a program announcement on environmental issues of nanotechnology in 2003, and we have initiated discussions with EC for a common approach for responsible nanotechnology development.