So there they were, these nanoscientists quietly growing their clay nanocomposites or vapour-depositing their quantum dots or whatever it is each of them does, and all at once they found they had become the new Victor Frankensteins, the modern Prometheuses, the contemporary Fausts, dabbling with dangerous forces they cannot control. This was the year that society woke up to nanotechnology and got very alarmed.

In following this story, I am going to take an unapologetically British-based perspective, partly because it is in the British media that much of it has unfolded, partly because that is what I am most familiar with, and partly because Britain has become particularly cautious about the new technologies it adopts. In the US, the debates have been confined largely to the academic and research community; public involvement and discussion has been far more muted. I would be glad to know more about how the story has unfolded in other parts of Europe, and about whether, for example, nanophobia has taken hold at all in Japan.

Preying on nano

I don’t think we can blame it all on Bill Joy and Michael Crichton, but neither can it be a total coincidence that Crichton’s novel Prey was published in November of 2002. Here, inevitably I think, grey goo is threatening the world in the time-honoured manner of Godzilla and The Blob, and, courtesy of 20th Century Fox, is soon to be showing at a cinema near you. Prey topped the bestseller lists last Christmas, and how many of us can deny having had the guilty pleasures of reading it? It is junk, of course - albeit with the compelling, page-turning quality that just about any popular thriller must attain - and the science is frankly sometimes terrible. But dissecting the scientific flaws is beside the point; Prey would not have been successful if it did not tap into existing currents of fear, and what could be more scary than a foe we cannot even see?

Prey spent 15 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and with impeccable timing, at the end of January, the ETC Group, an environmental organization based in Canada, released their exposé of nanotechnology called The Big Down at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil ( http://www.etcgroup.org/documents/TheBigDown.pdf). “In the future”, it warns, “mass production of unique nanomaterials and self-replicating nano-machinery pose incalculable risks.” Strangely, and rather unhelpfully, the document tries to introduce the word “atomtechnology” in place of nanotechnology, and claims that “by 2015 the controllers of atomtechnology will be the ruling force in the world economy.”

The Big Down makes sure to outline the prospect of grey goo, but adds that “perhaps it is not the grey goo we need to fear but the green goo”: tailor-made self-replicating organisms based on already-existing living systems. In focusing on the immense potential of biological molecular systems to furnish working nanotechnological devices, The Big Down seems to be making a very reasonable point. But to leap from that to autonomously self-replicating systems seems to me to grossly undervalue what life itself entails in terms of molecular and nanoscale organization. Well, perhaps we should not be too parochial about this: viruses have already been built from scratch, from their genome upwards, and there is talk of genetically engineered bacteria serving as “wet nanobots” to carry out programmed tasks such as hydrogen production. No-one can or should deny the potential hazards in such research. But how, we might wonder, does all that fit in with carbon nanotubes and quantum dots? When we talk about nanotechnology, how might its boundaries be meaningfully circumscribed?

Of course, nanotechnology may have at least one thing in common with biotechnology: it is a new, emerging technology that is very poorly understood in the public arena and which, partly as a result, has the potential to incite tremendous suspicion and opposition. This was the underlying agenda of a paper published in February in the journal Nanotechnology (A Mnyusiwalla, A S Daar & P A Singer 2003 Nanotechnology 14 R9-R13). Called “Mind the Gap”, it was a perspective on the ethical and social dimensions of nanotechnology written by bioethicists in Canada.

The paper warns that there is a paucity of serious, published research into the ethical, legal and social implications of nanotechnology. It implies that unless the scientists involved in nanotech research take the lead in airing these implications, there is a real possibility that the public and governments will latch onto the fictitious dangers flagged by the likes of apparently authoritative commentators such as Bill Joy, and try to rein in the discipline. The authors of the report warn that “there is a danger of derailing nanotechnology if the study of ethical, legal and social implications does not catch up with the speed of scientific development”.

We now live in a world, the authors say, where there is a heightened public distrust of new science and technology, highlighted by the debates that have raged about genetic modification, cloning and stem-cell research. Physical scientists have not previously felt the impact of this new cultural climate, but they would do well to heed the lessons that these episodes have taught other scientists. In particular, while it is important to engage with the public in terms of communicating what the science is about and fostering an atmosphere in which informed discussion can take place, that may not be enough in itself. It is increasingly important that scientists be seen to be taking a lead in thinking about the ethical dimensions of what they do, rather than simply reacting to dissenting voices or appearing to believe that these aspects are outside their expertise and responsibilities.

Also in January, the Better Regulation Task Force published a document called Scientific Research: Innovation with Controls, which made recommendations to the UK government about how to handle ethical and social issues pertaining to new medical technologies and to nanotechnology. The task force is basically a kind of think tank, an independent body that advises the government. Its recommendations were, to be honest, rather anodyne, calling for openness, public engagement and the provision of information that will enable people to judge issues for themselves, and the need for government to take a strong lead over handling risk issues. And indeed the government responded by agreeing to “accept in principle” all of these recommendations; it would have been surprising and rather alarming if it had not.

In March, the Royal Institution (RI) in London hosted a day-long seminar on nanotech called “Atom by atom”, which I personally found useful for hearing a broad cross-section of opinions on what has become known as nanoethics. I will come back to some of these later, but let me mention a few issues here. First, the worry was raised that what is qualitatively new about nanotech is that it allows, for the first time, the manipulation of matter at the atomic scale. This may be a common view, and it must force us to ask: how can it be that we live in a society where it is not generally appreciated that this is what chemistry has done in a rational and informed way for the past two centuries and more? How have we let that happen? It is becoming increasingly clear that the debate about the ultimate scope and possibilities of nanotech revolve around questions of basic chemistry, and if you want to see an example of what I mean, take a look at the exchange between Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley in the 1 December issue of Chemical and Engineering News. The knowledge vacuum in which much public debate of nanotech is taking place exists because we have little public understanding of chemistry: what it is, what it does, and what it can do.

Second, there was a reiteration and refinement at the RI meeting of what nanotech can learn from the experiences of biotech. Specifically, it is no good simply assuming we know what it is that the public fears or misunderstands; we will not know that unless we ask them in a careful and systematic way, and that is the kind of job that requires the skills of social scientists. It appears that many of the concerns that people actually held about genetically modified crops were not those presented by the popular media but were more informed and more considered. We need proper surveys to assess what the issues are; gut feelings and subjective impressions are not a good guide here.

Royal concerns

In April, the nano debate shifted up a gear. That was when Prince Charles stepped into the fray. He had, it seems, read The Big Down, and was alarmed by what it said. There were some strong responses to his publicly voiced concerns. According to Ian Gibson, chairman of the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, “we shouldn’t be associated with scare stories - science fiction about grey goos and the world being swallowed up. When a prince - an incipient king - speaks, people will listen.” Harry Kroto at Sussex University said of the royal intervention: “It shows a complete disconnection from reality. He should take a degree in chemistry, or at least talk to someone who understands it, rather than reading silly books.”

But one could reasonably argue that all Prince Charles was really doing was asking for more information. To all appearances, he seemed keen to find a more authoritative source whose opinions he could trust, and to that end the British government commissioned the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to produce a report on what nanotechnology is and what dangers it possibly poses - of which, more later.

Among the public debates prompted by the Prince’s comments was a fairly intemperate one broadcast by the Today programme on Radio 4. I missed the programme myself, but I am told by that conduit of web-based techno-gossip The Inquirer that Zac Goldsmith, editor of the Ecologist magazine, said he was told by “a Sun Microsystems senior scientist” that “nanotechnology will open Pandora’s most terrifying box, and that the technology is evil”. An exasperated Harry Kroto countered by imploring Goldsmith to “relax, it’s only chemistry”. When I recounted that statement in a recent article on nanotech in the New Statesman magazine, I was promptly challenged by a reader who argued that this was a phrase unlikely to have been used by the manager of Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant. This is the quagmire we’re in.

Also in April, the UK astronomer royal Sir Martin Rees published his book Our Final Century (Heinemann), in which he suggests that humankind has only a 50:50 chance of making it to 2100. Among the possible armageddons that Rees discusses is one induced by nanotechnology. He is relatively considered about this, and it would be unfair to accuse him of scaremongering. Indeed, the reference to nano-doom is very brief: “Nanotechnology…might advance to a stage at which a replicator, with its associated dangers, became technically feasible. There would then be the risk, as there now is with biotechnology, of a catastrophic “release” (or that the technique could be used as a “suicide” weapon); the only countermeasure would be a nanotech analogue of an immune system. To guard against this, Robert Freitas suggests an Asilomar-style moratorium: artificial life should be studied only via computer experiments, rather than by experimenting with any kind of “real” machines, and there should be a ban on developing nanomachines that can reproduce in a natural environment.

Yet I have read few reviews or descriptions of the book that do not pick up on this particular doomsday scenario. One has to conclude that it chimes with the mood of these millenarian times.

In June, the Royal Society launched its nanotech study on the same day that the European Parliament hosted the 1st European Seminar on Societal Impacts of Nanotechnology in Brussels, Belgium. This meeting provided something of a focus for pressure groups such as ETC, raising fresh talk - although, I think, no real prospect - of a moratorium on nanotech. Among the anti-nano rhetoric were statements like this one: “At the nanoscale, [the particles] are screaming that we are different. And if they behave differently then it’s time to talk about these novel materials, especially as we are about to introduce them into the mind and the human body.”

We might be tempted to think this sounds like hysteria, but it alerts us to the fact that many non-scientists find it profoundly unsettling that nanoscience enters the quantum regime. Let’s not forget that many people, if they know anything about quantum physics at all, have acquired the notion that it is deeply strange, a weird, ghostly world profoundly different from our own. The idea has been widely put about that we simply don’t understand that world, and that this makes it almost impossible to predict what nanosystems might do. In an article called “We must not be blinded by science” in the Guardian newspaper, Caroline Lucas, the Green Party Member of the European Parliament representing south-east England, reminded us inadvertently of this fundamental misconception when she stated that “the commercial value of nanotech stems from the simple fact that the laws of physics don’t apply at the molecular level”.

The problem is that it is easy to use such blunders as a basis for dismissing the position of these campaigning groups entirely. That would be a big mistake. When Lucas goes on to assert that “the risk we face is that nanotech, like GM, will be primarily about providing a profitable ‘techno fix’ for the problems of the affluent”, she is probably overstating the case, but I think it behoves us to ask whether there is at least some degree to which this might be a valid point of view.

Likewise, in July Greenpeace published a report on nanotech and artificial intelligence called Future Technologies, Today’s Choices, which seems to me to be both well informed and commendably balanced. It’s not by any means an anti-technology or even an anti-nanotechnology document, and it is happy to point out that there is “some nano-advocate awareness of environmentally sound practice”. Unlike The Big Down, it avoids sensationalist depictions of nanotech and instead highlights the evolutionary over the revolutionary: “The longer term structural impact of nanotechnology on a whole range of sectors could be substantial in 30-50 years. These changes are likely to be gradual as, on the whole, the displacement of an old technology by a new one tends to be both slow and incomplete.”

But, like “Mind the Gap”, the Greenpeace report warns that a failure to accommodate ethical issues could undermine any social mandate for nanotechnology: “Although an externally imposed moratorium seems both unpractical and probably damaging at present, industry may find such a fate virtually self-imposed if they do not take the issue of public acceptance seriously.”

In July, the UK Economic and Social Research Council published a report entitled The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology, prepared by a team at the University of Sheffield. It is essentially a status report both in terms of where nanotechnology is headed and the social implications. In that sense, it provides a nice summary of where the debate stands: “There is an emerging debate between those who believe that the rapid growth of nanotechnology defined in its broader sense will have strongly positive economic benefits, and those who on the grounds of environmentalism and social equity seek to slow or halt the development of nanotechnology. This debate is anchored in current applications. [Also] at issue is whether the existing regulatory framework for food, drugs, cosmetics, and workplace and environmental safety is sufficiently robust to incorporate any special features of nanoparticles, or whether new structures need to be set in place.”

But lest we forget about grey goo, the report adds that there is also a debate “about whether the radical view of nanotechnology, leading to molecular manufacturing, is feasible or practical, whether by the route sketched out by Drexler or some other means. Those who consider this radical view of nanotechnology to be feasible are divided as to whether it will lead to a positive or negative outcome for society. This debate takes for granted that nanotechnology will have a revolutionary effect on society, and the contrasting visions are correspondingly utopian or dystopian.”

Of course, those of us who feel that it is hard to regard molecular biology as anything other than a form of “molecular manufacturing” might argue that there is scarcely any need for a debate about its feasibility. Whether, as Drexler would have us believe, molecular biology provides us with something akin to an existence proof for his ideas is quite another matter.

This confusion also seems to be reflected in the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, passed on 18 November by the US Senate “to authorize appropriations for nanoscience, nanoengineering and nanotechnology research, and for other purposes”. It is basically a bill for setting out a funding framework for US nanotech, but the final version of the document contains a curious recommendation for a “one-time study” into the “feasibility of molecular self-assembly”, which has been interpreted by some as a challenge to those who support Drexler’s vision of molecular manufacturing to make their case or forever hold their peace. Apparently this is not so; the bill in fact seems to have been designed specifically to avoid mention of the Drexlerian model of nanotech entirely. Frankly, this leaves me unsure as to what this proposed one-time study is in fact supposed to achieve, particularly as the feasibility of molecular self-assembly is demonstrably beyond question.

And then on 10 November, the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering published a draft of a report on “the current state and expected applications of nanoscience and nanotechnology, and the health, safety and environmental benefits and risks of nanotechnology” (http://www.nanotec.org.uk/SEworkshopReport1.pdf; see also www.nanotec.org.uk/workshopOct03.htm), with a call for comments and criticisms from the community. While I should emphasize that this is not by any means the full report of the RS/RAE working party, but merely the outcome of a single gathering of scientists and engineers (and there is more to be found about this ongoing project at http://www.nanotec.org.uk), it does seem odd to me that, given that this project was ostensibly set up in response to worries about the social and environmental impacts of nanotechnology, this document should have so little to say about them.

The issue of nanoparticle toxicology is treated seriously and sensibly, and indeed I think it is now fair to say that this issue is being dealt with responsibly by the nanotech community more broadly. The key point here is that if the materials from which nanoparticles are made are generally regarded as safe at the macroscopic level, there is currently no need for them to be registered as new chemicals. But because their properties and dispersal mechanisms, such as their ability to enter into cells, might be quite different from macro materials, there is no guarantee that problems of bioaccumulation and toxicity might not arise purely on account of their size. (George Smith of Oxford University has pointed out that silver nanoparticles appear to act as very effective anti-bacterial agents - something that microbiologists cannot yet explain.) The US Environmental Protection Agency has now allocated funding to the study of the environmental impacts of nanotechnological products. They are being studied, for example, at the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University, where Vicki Colvin has this to say: “Nanomaterials are a broad class of materials, and it is impossible to expect that all are safe. There probably will be some that are not too good for you.” She adds, “I do feel that eventually there will be a regulatory component to this industry.”

But we do not have a good public environment for discussions about toxicity. The message, now five centuries old, that the poison is in the dose is still not widely understood. Groups like ETC tend to sweep these complexities under the carpet. Their assumption of guilt until innocence is proven makes sense only if it acknowledges a sensible legal definition of guilt. Moreover, the group’s publications carry the absurd implication that the mere possibility of toxicity warrants an absolute ban both on commercial products and laboratory research using nanoparticles. Yet every undergraduate chemistry lab in the country is stacked with lethal compounds: safe handling is part and parcel of chemical research. And the technological world is full of poisons: there is arsenic in every CD player. I anticipate that, once the data on nanoparticle toxicity start coming in, we may be in for a rocky ride.

Beyond toxicity

All the same, that debate is the easy part. In the Royal Society report, all the other questions about the ethics and social effects of nanotechnology are sidelined into a single paragraph. At the RI meeting in March, Doug Parr of Greenpeace raised a host of entirely pertinent issues. Is nanotechnology primarily about wealth creation, or improving our quality of life, or something else? Who is developing it, and why? With what responsibility, justification and accountability? Who deals with potential problems, and how? Is there, and should there be, a public mandate for it? The scientific community has no excuse for ignoring such questions.

There is, for example, a huge military interest in nanotechnology, particularly in the US. Some of this is stimulated simply by the prospect of better electronics - faster, more compact, more robust - with all the implications that has for improved communications, missile guidance and so forth. But there are also possibilities for developing new weapons or new systems for offensive combat. The US army has established a $50 m nanotech research centre called the Center for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT, which makes its ambitions very plain: “Imagine the psychological impact upon a foe when encountering squads of seemingly invincible warriors protected by armour and endowed with superhuman capabilities, such as the ability to leap over 20-foot walls.” Well, I think perhaps we should imagine that. We should imagine it not in the context of a science-fiction world of robocop-style images of “performance enhanced” soldiers in nanotechnological battle gear, as in the early publicity images (which, interestingly, have now been toned down to show real soldiers). We should rather imagine it in the context of international relations, of the social and political implications of weapons development and arms trading. That doesn’t require us to be pacifists opposed to all forms of defence research, but it does require us to regard science as something that is embedded in a social, political and cultural fabric.

There is fertile ground here, of course, for encouraging spectral fears of incredibly high-tech nanotechnological terrorism, and I think it is very easy to be diverted by such fantasies - which, of course, ignore the stark effectiveness of the decidedly quick and dirty methods that seem to be on today’s menu of terrorism. The real implications of “soldier nanotechnologies” for international relations and security may, like missile defence systems, lie more with the concept than with the physical realization. More immediately relevant, perhaps, are questions that arise from the potential of nanotechnology in developing surveillance systems that could be almost invisible or undetectable.

Questions about safety, equity, military involvement and openness are ones that pertain to many other areas of science and technology. It would be a grave and possibly dangerous distortion if nanotechnology were to come to be seen as a discipline that raises unprecedented ethical and moral issues. In this respect, I think it genuinely does differ from some aspects of biotechnological research, which broach entirely new moral questions. Yet it is perhaps the first major field of science, applied science or technology - call it what you will - to have emerged in a social climate that is sensitized in advance to the need for ethical debate in emerging technologies.

I am concerned that if we were to begin convening committees to oversee the ethical dimensions of nanotechnology, they will take the soft option. They will set in place guidelines for health and safety, good industrial practice, environmental responsibility and so forth - all important issues, and urgently needed - while sidestepping the wider and more difficult questions that have been raised: who is doing this, and why, to what end, and for whose benefit? Scientists do not feel comfortable addressing these things, while businesses have sometimes been more actively unwilling to hear them. On the other hand, I am not really sure that they are issues that can be addressed adequately from within the, in this context, narrow scope of nanotechnology. Nanofabrication methods are likely, for example, to introduce still greater increases in the power and pervasiveness of information technology, but they are in this respect merely a tool, and they may merely sustain existing trends in this direction. The debate about the social, political and economic effects of such a powerful information technology is surely one that needs to happen around the IT industry broadly, not among people working specifically on nanotech. Likewise with questions about technological enhancement of the capabilities of the human body. If these things were to come to be seen as concerns specific to nanotechnology, I wonder if that would ultimately inhibit rather than encourage the public debate about them.

Yet the pragmatic truth is that if nanotechnology does not acknowledge some kind of ethical dimension, it will be forced upon it in any case. Those working in the field know that nanotech is not really a discipline at all, that it has no coherent aims and is not the sole concern of any one industrial sector. But even funding agencies speak of it as though this were not so. To the public mind, organizations such as the US National Nanotechnology Initiative surely suggest by their very existence that nanotech has some unity, and it is therefore quite proper that people will want to be reassured that its ethical aspects are being considered.

And if that discussion is going to take place, it must truly be a dialogue. It is no longer sufficient to imagine, as I am afraid the Royal Society report rather seems to imply and as has long been assumed in efforts to increase public understanding of science, that the task is simply to better educate the public. The idea that, once “they” have all the facts in front of them, “they” will agree with “our” point of view, is short sighted and patronizing. It may be that the emergence of nanotechnology will prompt a genuine and much overdue exchange about what we want from our science and technologies. If that was the ultimate consequence of grey goo, perhaps it will have served a valuable purpose after all.