I write the article Witnessing the birth of the European nano-effort? in The Sprout of January 2004.
Opponents to nanotechnology only care about policy. But if eurocrats and techies could engage in a policy discussion, guided by a vision which expands beyond funding for the next year or a better insulin pump, then the future has a chance- that is, of course if the EU Commissioner can even be bothered to turn up to such talks...
"La Bora", the strong wind of the Adriatic Sea swept through the city of Trieste in Italy. But there was no wind sweeping through the conference centre that hosted the EuroNanoForum 2003. Between December 9th and 12th more than a thousand delegates gathered at the conference organised by the European Commission's DG for Research/ Industrial Research, in order to assess both the state of the art and policy issues in the area of nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology, the manufacture of materials and machines with atomic precision and size, is widely regarded as the next revolution in technology. It is predicted to become a very broad emergent technology, with several different areas of application such as functional materials, medicine, electronics, and optics.
While the debate rages on its eventual capabilities or even how to define it, it is becoming popular for funding and investment. In the early and middle 1990's nanotechnology was just speculative ideas, something to interest open-minded researchers, engineering hobbyists and science fiction fans. But slowly the idea percolated through the scientific community. It went from a wild idea to the next big thing. Suddenly funding for nanotechnology research appeared and it was not just acceptable to study it, but a good buzzword to add to one's research proposal.
EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin spoke to the conference via a recorded message. Busquin's speech summed up what the conference was about: the EU formally acknowledged nanotechnology as an important part of European research. This was bolstered by the presence of several prominent guests, among them Nobel laureate Sir Harry Kroto.
Nanotechnology represents a great scientific challenge, since traditional scientific disciplines like biology, chemistry and microtechnology converge. New inter-disciplinary approaches need to be developed. But in becoming acceptable research the original meaning of nanotechnology has been diluted, which was visible in many scientific presentations at the conference. Whereas it was first considered as operations on the molecular scale using molecular tools, nanotechnology now appears to mean any technology involving extremely small structures. One reason is of course that as it became well funded it was advantageous for researchers to call their research nanotechnology if it involved tiny structures in some way.
New manufacturing tools require a novel entrepreneurial attitude. Thus a session was dedicated to how to raise venture capital for start-ups. Much is expected of the field to create new jobs. But the European problem of translating scientific innovation into concrete business opportunities was visible because of Europe's difficulties of raising sufficient venture capital and providing entrepreneurial structures.
In looking at the here-and-now issues, we may lose sight of the larger and more important issues facing us. Problems can likely be designed away with some forethought. But even fairly mild nanotechnological applications raise important questions of what we want to achieve with industry and our lives, where we want to take the economy and our species. These are the real issues, but they cannot be debated within the rather narrow discourse among regulators and engineers.
Unfortunately, those at the conference who started to take a deeper look at the social implications often did it from the perspective of the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is often misused as a tool to stifle development or gain political control over it rather than the common sense approach of being careful with things that we have reason to suspect are dangerous. The real test of sincerity in applying it is whether the one proposing it is interested in examining benefits in addition to risks, and weighing them. Quite often potential benefits clearly outweigh even fairly clear risks, and precautions should not be applied to stifle beneficial development. But when the risks are automatically given primacy, then there is no room for constructive analysis- other issues than just risks are the real source of the controversy.
The irony is that much of the nanotechnology field, in its eagerness to distance itself from its roots in "science fiction" has also ignored these deeper issues. A shortsighted search for directly applicable practical results becomes pure science or technology, and easily misses the important policy dimensions.
European nanotechnology research would do well to develop technologies of foresight at the same time: social or digital tools to further knowledge exchange, constructive debate, cross-examination of evidence and views, institutions to engage the public and special interests in dialogue about potential about potential future applications and their risks and benefits.
Opponents to technology only care about policy. But if one can meet them in a policy discussion, guided by a vision more long-range than funding for the next year or a better insulin pump, then the future has a chance. Maybe a "Bora" wind of visions and audacity could do some good for European nanoresearch too.