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Nanotechnology: facts and fictions.

Similar to other scientific areas, such as genetics and stem cell research, nanotechnology has sparked both public enthusiasm and social concern. Though hardly a new field of research, it is only recently that nanotechnology has caught the attention of the popular media and major public funding agencies. As a result of these developments, nanotechnology is now the focus of policy discussions and ethical debates.

In this special edition of the Health Law Review we explore both the scientific and social issues associated with nanotechnology. We have brought together a remarkable, interdisciplinary, collection of authors, including lawyers, philosophers, sociologists, communications experts, and nanotechnology scientists; the perfect team to provide information about the reality of the current science and to analyse the complex and still forming social concerns associated with nanotechnology.

A theme that runs through many of the papers in this collection relates to the "hype" that surrounds nanotechnology. There are already a number of outspoken stakeholders that are both actively promoting as well as crusading against nanotechnology--a reality explored in the paper by Einsiedel and McMullen. Groups such as Canada's ETC Group, for example, have gone so far as to call for a complete moratorium on nanotechnology research, portraying severe environmental and social concerns. Advocates of the research, such as those within government who view nanotechnology as an important plank of the emerging knowledge-based economy, emphasize theoretical benefits and commercial potential. Though these stakeholder groups often serve to facilitate public dialogue on important issues, they also tend to push the debate to extremes and cloud public discussions with highly speculative risks and benefits.

Regardless of the source of the hype, our experience with biotechnology shows that too much hype can be detrimental. It can adversely affect public trust, private investment and policy debate. As noted by Williams-Jones, "if governments, academic scientists, and industry wish to effectively develop the potential of nanoscience and nanotechnologies, they must be cognisant of the dangers of over-hyping research and losing public trust."

Countering the hype must start with an appreciation of the science and its likely applications. To this end, Tyshenko's piece covers the controversial area of molecular nanotechnology. And by separating "the reality of nanoscience and nanotechnology from the fantasy," Wolkow's paper seeks to provide a more moderate vision of this field of study than is often found in the popular press. He suggests that such an approach is essential to informed policy development.

But equally important is an understanding of the cause and nature of public perceptions. The paper by Lopez, for example, explores the role of narrative devices used in science fiction on how society conceives future applications of nanotechnology. Schuler's paper considers the available research on public perceptions of risk in relation to new technologies and speculates how it relates to nanotechnology. In the end, she emphasizes the importance of public engagement and public trust--a conclusion reached by a number of the authors in this collection.

Though all would seem to agree that "hype" or unsupportable speculation are not constructive elements of public and political debate, some degree of "forecasting" is required in order to develop policies capable of accommodating scientific developments and the concomitant social concerns. The paper by Mehta considers the future economic impact of nanotechnology. McDonald explores the application of existing ethical principles. Wolbring suggests that the policy debates surrounding nanotechnology require a more detailed consideration of how nanotechnology may "impact on disabled people their lives, their self-perception and their relation with non-disabled people." Sheremeta discusses the potential impact of nanotechnology in the in the context of human subject research, and poses some difficult questions that policy-makers must face when confronting these issues.

Finally, Kerr and Bassi conclude, rightly, that what is currently needed is a broadly based, well informed and ongoing dialogue. "[I]n the face of scientific uncertainty, we ought to be oriented toward building a broader, more inclusive network that embraces actors from diverse sectors and enables the development of an overlapping consensus in the shaping of the future policy." A wonderful call to arms for the emerging Canadian nanotechnology community.

I would like to thank all of the authors for their superb contributions, Lori Sheremeta for leading the effort, Nola Ries and Angela Long for their editorial skills, Nina Hawkins for keeping us all in line and NINT for its continued support.

Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy; Professor, Faculty of Law and Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry; Research Director, Health Law Institute, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.
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Author:Caulfield, Timothy
Publication:Health Law Review
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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