The politics of small things: nanotechnology, risk, and uncertainty
Technology and Society Magazine, IEEE
Vol. 23, Num. 4
Despite breathless ecomiums by industry and government, Wilsdon notes that nanotechnology is still, in many cases, a solution in search of a problem. While its promoters are many, it has also attracted critics and detractors, in part because the biotechnology industries with analogous promise also had analogous risks. The toxicity of nanoparticles and the need for regulation are in debate.
This article explores three dimensions of uncertainty in emerging debates over nanotechnology: imagination, regulation, and participation. In imagination, Wilsdon finds "nano-radicals," among them Eric Drexler, "nano-realists," typified by Richard Smalley, and "nano-critics," the most vocal of which has been ETC. There is agreement from all sides that any sort of nano-disaster is going to be more manageable with a legal framework of regulations in place. However, the degree of necessarily regulation is in debate, with some arguing that current regulations are sufficient, and others, more vocal, arguing that nanoparticles have unique properties not covered by existing laws and regulations. On this point, Wilsdon argues that public trust can be lost not by a disaster, but by a conviction that the government has green-lighted a new technology with no more than a cursory glance at its potential problems. Public participation, then, needs to be moved "upstream." "What might this look like in practice?" Wilsdon asks. "First, it requires funding streams and research priorities to be opened to broader social scrutiny. Second, it requires new forms of 'public peer review' or 'real-time technology assessment' that bring more diverse forms of social intelligence into scientific research at an early stage." Wilsdon concludes that the debate has hardly even begun.