The best things come in small packages, so the old adage goes. My job - to cut a long story short - is to determine whether this is true. I am chairing a study on nanotechnology and nanoscience for the Royal Society - the UK national academy of science - and the Royal Academy of Engineering. In June 2003, the UK government commissioned the two bodies to carry out an independent study to investigate the potential benefits and possible problems associated with nanotechnology and to assess how to regulate this emerging field as it develops.

Many believe that nanotechnology is the next big thing in science and technology, and that it offers us tremendous benefits. Scientists, for example, are looking at whether nanotechnology could be used to improve the delivery of cancer-fighting drugs and whether carbon nanotubes could increase the speed and power of computer circuits. Others, though, have raised concerns about possible risks from the development of this small-scale science and whether, given such rapid advances in understanding, regulators can control these risks properly. Issues include concerns about the toxicity of nanoparticles, the potential for military applications of nanotechnology and the headline-grabbing “grey goo” scenario.

It is important that we get the regulation of nanotechnology right while the field is still in its infancy. Our study aims to identify the environmental, health and safety, ethical and societal implications, and uncertainties that may arise from the use of the technology both at present and in the future, as well as assessing what the benefits of nanotechnology could be. An important part of the process will be determining where research is now, where it might be in 10 or 20 years’ time, and where it could be further into the future.

Small science, big impact
Nanotechnology will impact on everyone - it is not science for science’s sake, but is about providing useful applications that researchers hope will benefit society. For this reason, our working group is not just made up of nanotechnology experts, but incorporates non-science experts too. The group will include experts in ethics, medicine, the environment and consumer concerns. This will provide a broad outlook and will ensure that penetrating questions are asked of everyone involved in the nanotechnology debate. Similarly, we issued a call for views at the start of the study to find out the areas that stakeholders wanted our work to cover.

We intend to involve stakeholders throughout the study. Once the working group has assessed the response to the call for views, we will identify the main areas of concern and interest. We are likely to ask for further submissions of evidence and, based on this, invite some groups and individuals to present oral evidence at open sessions.

In the first working-group meeting we will finalize the elements of our study. We will look into holding a horizon-scanning workshop with leading figures from the world of nanoscience and nanotechnology, to ensure we have access to the most up-to-date information about current and likely technical advances. A workshop including experts in regulation could also follow. But as well as considering the state of the science and regulation, we want our study to address the public’s concerns. That’s why we are planning to consult widely and are considering various ways of doing so, including focus groups, a survey and an online discussion forum.

At the end of the study, likely to be in late spring 2004, we will publish a report outlining our findings. Our report will be designed for researchers working in academia and industry, policy-makers within and outside government, and the wider society, with recommendations aimed at these groups.

We expect the UK government to be particularly interested in our findings, not just because it has commissioned the study, but also because it is currently reviewing the best way to regulate nanoscience and nanotechnology in the future. This follows the recommendations of a report by the Better Regulation Task Force, an independent group that advises the government “on action to ensure that regulation and its enforcement are transparent, accountable, proportionate, consistent and targeted”.

Industry is also likely to pay close attention to our study, as any further regulation will obviously determine the way it works in the future. In addition, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is currently conducting a study into government funding of nanotechnology, which is likely to be of interest to this sector.

And of course, we believe the public will have a strong interest in our results. In May 2003, many national newspapers reported that Prince Charles had contacted the Royal Society for help in identifying experts who could advise him about developments in nanotechnology, following claims by campaigners that tiny self-replicating nanobots could run amok and reduce the world to a “grey goo”.

This, incidentally, is the plot to Prey, the latest science-fiction novel by Michael Crichton, who also wrote Jurassic Park. With the film of the book expected in the UK later this year, public interest in nanotechnology is likely to remain high. One of the aims of our study is to help people distinguish between hype and nightmarish science fiction on the one hand, and realistic forecasts about the potential benefits and risks of nanoscience and nanotechnology on the other. We hope the science facts prove to be as much of a page-turner as the science fiction.