I was recently invited and attended an expert meeting on nanotechnology and ethics hosted by the UNESCO, Division of Ethics and Science and Technology in Paris (Nov 16/17th 2006). I was the only NGO representative amongst twenty invited ‘experts’. Other participants included representatives of the Japanese, US, French, Dutch and EU governments, OECD and ISO representatives, as well as a selection of academics from Hungary, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Qatar and the UK.

The purpose of the 2-day meeting was to comment on a draft of a policy advice on nanotechnology and ethics to UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific and Technical Knowledge (COMEST). You can read FoEA’s comments on the draft paper below .

While the UNESCO will of course publish a full account of the meeting in a few months, I wanted to summarize the key themes that were discussed and comment on the meeting and some of the talks in general. UNESCO has already published a booklet on the ethics and politics of nanotechnology and is currently working on policy advice on nanotechnologies and ethics for COMEST.

Interestingly the mandate of COMEST is not only to be a forum for the exchange of ideas and experience, but also to detect early signs of risk situations associated with science and technology and promote dialogue between the scientific communities, decision-makers and the public at large.

The proceedings began with almost a whole day of presentations, which I found a bit tedious, given that all assembled were ‘experts’ in the field. Nevertheless they provided an insight on what and who was considered important.

From a government perspective we heard from the UK and Japan, Intra governmental agencies speaking were the UNESCO and the OECD www.oecd.org/env/nanosafety. Additionally, there was a talk about the apparent relevancy of nanotechnologies for developing countries. But before I comment on this talk, here is a story for you to consider. It is based on a snippet that the UK representative told me over morning tea (see end of story).

Imagine you a farmer in Africa. Your family has lived by a particular river for as long as you can remember. You are poor, sometimes hungry, but in most years you have been able to feed your family by growing and then selling a few crops, running a goat, or sometimes two and catching fish from the river next to which you live. The river also provides drinking water and on very hot days an opportunity to swim and frolic. But a few years ago things changed. The crops wouldn’t grow the way they used to and drinking the water from the river made you and your family sick. The fish died and swimming in the river was unthinkable. Now your wife had to get up two hours earlier to walk and get water from a far way well. You are a poor farmer, but you are not dumb. The cause of the change had been the building of a factory upstream. The factory was poisoning the river, the factory was polluting your livelihood, making your family sick, killing the fish and your crops. There was nothing you or your community could do as the factory was owned by the uncle of the brother of the local chief. But then one day some white men came, they were interested to know about your water problem. And they had a solution. Little filters (they called them nano filters) that would only cost you a week’s/ a month’s/a year’s wage and would work for a long time (a year perhaps), and these filters which as by magic, would take the poison away and you would be able to drink the water. The little magic filter were still no solution for the fish, or your vegetables, because they could only filter enough water to drink, but you had no choice. The short version of the story was: when we did some research in Africa we found the reason people couldn’t get safe drinking water was because a factory upstream was polluting it, nanofiltration of the water seemed a good solution to this problem.

This is then the story of how nanotechnology it is going to bring safe drinking water to the poor. It illustrates for me many points that we discussed over the two days, but it makes frighteningly clear that technology is never a solution for problems that are of a political and social nature.

Fabio Salamanaca Buentello from the “MCLauglin-Rotman Centre of Molecular solutions to global infections” gave a talk on the relevancy of nanotechnologies for developing countries and their ethical implications (e.g. see a recent paper he co-authored on this topic).

Fabio endeavoured to position nanotechnologies as a tool to address critical sustainable development challenges for the 21st century (http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals). When you consider some of the statistics this is a laudable goal. A third of all of people on planet earth or 2 billion have no electricity and one third rely on traditional non-renewable fuels. 1.2 billion people have no access to clean drinking water. More than 1 million children die annually of malaria. More than 3 million people die annually of AIDS, mostly in the majority world.

I will not go here into a detailed discussion of his ideas, but suffice to say that I found the suggested solutions highly alarming, irresponsible and devoid of any critical political and social analysis. Many of the proposed areas for solutions such as agricultural productivity enhancement, disease diagnosis, drug delivery systems, food processing and storage and vector and pest detection and even energy storage, production and conversion and water treatment and remediation are destined to destroy existing traditional cultural knowledge, widen the gap between rich and poor and ensure that the minority countries will further enslave majority countries.

One of the reasons for this entirely misguided analysis is the tendency to equate science and technology with progress and to assume that both are value free and without context. What follows are the major themes that emerged during the meeting. I have probably not captured all of them, but what follows will give you a feeling for what was discussed.

Nano divide

The issue of the impending nano divide was raised several times. The potential gap between the nano rich and the nano poor is a key issue in any discussion on ethics. While ideally the purpose of nano should be to satisfy social needs, in reality in appears to increase inequality, promote unequal access to resources.

Public participation/engagement

The need for public participation/engagement/debate is a central theme of much of the critical discussion around nanotechnology. This is partly a response to the failure to convince the public of the merits of the introduction of GMOs. It is felt that if only the public can be engaged early enough surely they will see the merit of any new technology to be introduced. It was therefore interesting to note that the UK Government representative felt that despite ’extensive public engagement’ nothing new in terms of what concerns the public is being learned. It seems the public comes up with very similar issues and concerns that were already raised in the nuclear and GMO debates. Nanotechnology, then, becomes a stand-in for any technology. To me this is not an indication that one should stop discussions, but that clearly certain concerns run across a number of technologies and that these concerns continue to be ignored and swept under the carpet. Perhaps the public is beginning to articulate what we are all experiencing: technology is not necessarily progress and is most certainly rarely used for public benefits.

There was an overall feeling that yes it was difficult to engage people, but that it makes basic democratic sense to try. “Costs shouldn’t matter either, but what matters is democracy”, is how one participant put it.

It is relatively easy for industry to participate in public debate because they not only have the money, but it is clearly in their interest. The difficulties of public participation are exacerbated in the Global South, where many countries have no tradition of public participation, were it is simply not seen as a necessity or where for cultural reasons the questioning of authority is discouraged.

It was felt that the UNESCO could play a role in encouraging public debate on a regional level, especially by engaging with civil society groups such as unions, consumer protection groups, environmental NGOs, faith groups etc.

In the context of public engagement a lively discussion was also head about the role of the media, media influence, and the need to engage with the media.

The UK continues to push antiquated thinking

I think what I found most upsetting, and really quite outrageous, given the scientific evidence to date, is that the UK representative kept insisting that the current regulatory framework was appropriate for the vast majority of nanotechnology products and that nanotechnologies regulation was really an extension of current chemicals regulation. The only challenge remaining in the UK government point of view is appropriate risk assessment. Given that most current regulation doesn’t even recognize nanomaterials, erroneously confusing them with their bulk cousins, I simply find it incomprehensible and irresponsible how the UK government can come to such conclusions. It is therefore no wonder that the UK governments attempt at public consultation result in the same old issues being raised.

The UK representative also kept insisting on a risk-based/evidence based regulatory approach for nanotechnology. Thankfully EU thinking around the precautionary approach prevailed in this expert meeting, but I have grave concerns for the future. Clearly there is a lot of fine tuning in relation to such an approach but we are at a point in human history where we need to exercise considerable ethical maturity, were we need to move forward slowly and responsibly and the precautionary approach is the only way we can achieve this.

Some discussions on ethics

The UNESCO draft policy paper to be discussed during the meeting is concerned with the intersection of nanotechnology and ethics. But curiously it neither defined ethics nor did it spell out any ethical principles to be followed. All the same it was clear to a few of us that nature/culture/society will all potentially be blurred with the advent of nanotechnologies. This then opens up many ethical and moral concerns. Will nanotechnology change the way we treat each other? The way we (mis)treat the environment. The way we conceive of nature or outer beings. Sadly, none of these issues were discussed in detail.

A long discussion ensued about values, and how the document currently very much reflected western values. UNESCO has here the unique opportunity to mention non-western values such as the long-term thinking, continuity of generations and the value of the integrity of community. In my opinion this should also include social justice and environmental sustainability.

A number of views were expressed in relation to this theme, including:
– That different cultures will develop different understandings of nanotechnology. Even between the EU and the US there are marked differences e.g. the EU attempts to shape the future of European society, while in the US individuals paramount.
– It was felt, that the policy document should recognize that there are different points of view e.g. Islamic, Buddhist/Shinto/Confucius and that ideally a multiplicity of views needs to be expressed and acknowledged. For instance relationship between ethics and science is different in Japan e.g. ethics are largely implicit with strongly shared societal goals. Others societies may not have science as a central point or any point in their worldview and that also needs to be acknowledged.
– With the emergence of organizational ethics, corporate social responsibilities and increased accountability of all stake holders, a useful source of ethical views could be professional body’s world wide.
– Interfaith dialogue may be important, after all 2/3 of humanity has some sort of religion, ethics are usually embedded in religion, it is important to make linkages between faith organizations and science and technology

We all agreed that openness, transparency and information sharing are key values. While there are specific issues relating to nanotechnologies, much of the discussions are generic to a number of new technologies and most often relate to the economic and social impacts of these new technologies.

While ethics as such was not defined, some spirited discussion erupted over usage of the terms nanotechnology, nanotechnologies or nano-scale technologies. While undoubtedly it is important to define our field of endeavour clearly, it really makes no difference to ethical considerations whether it is called nanotechnology or nanotechnologies.

Military use of nanotechnologies

The use of nanotechnologies for military purposes was raised several times. Curiously, and perhaps not surprisingly, the danger of military uses of nanotechnologies were not at all mentioned in the UNESCO policy document. Military use of nanotechnologies was however viewed as a key ethical issue e.g. the possibility of a military arms race. Clearly when, for instance, one third of all nanotechnology funding in the US is for military purposes, the trajectory of nanotechnology research is greatly influenced and skewed in this direction.

Because UNESCO is a cultural forum and is meant to further peace and conflict resolution, many delegates saw it as essential for UNESCO to take a stance in relation to and perhaps even against military nanotechnology research.

Public fears

There was a lengthy paragraph in the document that stated that apocalyptic visions of a nanotechnology future should be dismissed out of hand. While ‘grey goo’ may or may not be an issue in the future, the public visions and fears about the future, however unlikely, can not be simply swept under the carpet.

There is such a thing as rational fear. For instance algae in the ocean do most of photosynthesis on earth, nitrogen fixing bacteria in soil are vital. What would happen if they all died? We need to engage with the realities of scientific facts. We need mark certain actions and technologies as potentially risky behavior and proceed with more caution then we have in the past, an evidence–based assessment will simply not do.

Science and technology

Many of the attending experts agreed that science/technology are not neutral, but are ideologies or perhaps ontologies – conceptions of reality that need to be retold and re-imagined. Science and technology are always situated in a social/political/historical/cultural context.

One of these ontologies according to one participant is the vision of the market. A market strategy means winners and losers. A key question then is how to make a sustainable society without producing losers. What can we do for those who will be losers due to the new technologies. Can ethics and competition go together?

The ever increasing mistrust towards science is important and unacknowledged in the document. The document also makes no reference to legislation, but should in fact mention the need for consumer legislation e.g. right to know, labeling esp. food, OHS laws and criminal liability for corporate.

International organization – ISO, OECD, UNESCO or something new?

We didn’t really discuss in detail the role of international organizations, apart from the ISO committee technical work and the OECD work. But at least some participants expressed the need for some new international organization that could perform governance oversight of nanotechnologies on the international level. Much works needs to be done in this area, firstly to convince governments that this is a necessity and secondly to come up with an organization that is actually useful.

Impressions on surroundings

I find often when you hear about these meetings you really have no idea what it is like. So here a brief impression on the surroundings. The UNESCO head quarters is a stone’s throw from the Eiffel tower, in a rather nice part of Paris, yet I was not entirely prepared for the building. Imagine a classic 1970’s box (we were in the annex, but the main building is really no different), a cross between a never renovated university building and perhaps a hospital. After security had checked my bona fide credentials, I was left to my own devices to wander the endless Kafkaesque corridors. Some doors had interesting labels like Angola, Slovenia, or Kenya (not in that order, countries seemed strictly grouped by region) other offices were just unmarked doors. But mostly you were expected to know exactly were you are going and why. Ours was clearly not the only meeting, people were busily dashing about with trolleys full of files, conference rooms were filled with people and the morning tea/coffee was exactly as one would expect – undrinkable. But of course we did not come for the food or drink. The meeting was cordial and friendly, some of us had met before. The room was in keeping with the building, dark and windowless, but not too warm. There were headphones for translation purposes which some people used.


It is essential and important for UNESCO to acknowledge and point out to the proponents of nanotechnology that technological solutions are generally not applicable for what are essentially social and political problems. Key policy issues include:
– Research must look at next generation nanotechnology, not just nanoparticles.
– The precautionary approach must be the cornerstone and guiding principle.
– Social and economical impact of nanotechnologies need to be assed in order to guide appropriate research, industrial and development policies.
– International cooperation must be fostered.
– An international governance regime for all aspects of nanotechnology must be initiated.

The question then that needs to be answered is how can an international body like the UNESCO guarantee the relevancy of actions taken. How do you represent public opinion and moral concerns on a topic that is hardly on the horizon of the general public, but that does raise serious moral concerns especially in the areas of nanobiotechnolgy and the convergence of a number of technologies at the nanoscale.

Furthermore, how do you make sure that you enhance the political feasibility of actions without simply becoming a spokesperson for concerns and action that would enhance military and industrial desires, but diminish the wellbeing and equality of all humans.

Dr Rye Senjen