In early July 2006 I was invited and journeyed as the FOE Australia Nanotechnology Projects representative to Zurich to participate in the International Risk Governance Council Conference on Nanotechnology. The purpose of the conference was for the invited speakers and conference participants to comment on the IRCG whitepaper on ‘Nanotechnology Risk Governance’.

The IRGC is an interesting beast, its focus ‘is to help improve the anticipation and governance of global, systemic risks.’ Its main backers are the Swiss, US and Chinese (!) Government, Swiss Re, Allianz, E.ON Energie, ATEL and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

The conference was held at Swiss Re’s Global Dialogue Centre just outside Zurich. The venue was superb – with its modernist architecture, unbelievably delightful staff and delicious food I at least was left in a Zen like relaxed and convivial state. Yes I admit it, I could have stayed for weeks, the view from my room was simply sublime – ideal for early morning yoga sessions, the company interesting and sometimes amusing and short blacks and/or delectable local organic beer always available. Finally the venue exuded a rare spirit of generosity, one that is not bound up in opulence, but had more to do with the genuine friendliness and thoughtfulness of the people who designed and operated the venue….. but I digress.

The conference- first impressions

There were about 130 participants, of which six were representing NGO’s: FOE Australia, Greenpeace, Environmental Defense, Practical Action UK, the World Conservation Union, the Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology and the Foresight Institute. You can have a look at most of the presentations (including mine) here:  word of warning, they really need to be read in context with the paper above.

On the first day the question of the precautionary principle arose almost immediately. Not entirely surprising the Portuguese Minister for Science, Technology and Education Jose Mariano Gago proclaimed the precautionary principle to be nothing but a political tool, a tool to improve competition for some and not others and definitely something that we must go beyond (read abandon). Luckily Doug Parr from Greenpeace managed to point out that actually the aforementioned principle was an accepted legal definition and not a political concept. He also made the excellent point that going beyond the precautionary principle means that we need to look at precaution in principal i.e. that we need to ask ourselves do we actually need (need in a strict sense not just in the sense of needing to make money) a particular product.

A panel discussion

Next followed a panel discussion that was as enlightening as it was depressing. The representative from the industry behaved exactly as expected – first all the products of this particular firm were showcased, then a muted plea for regulation – zero interest in civil society concerns.

Next, the British government representative tried to explain the virtues of a voluntary regulatory regime, intriguingly (or should that be cynically) called ‘the green line’ approach. Its main stated aim is not to hinder progress and competitiveness of the UK industry and what they call shared responsibility. Well, looking at the history of such ‘shared ‘ approaches, IMHO it really means neither the government nor the industry want to take any responsibility for the often disastrous outcomes of new technology or products.

Next David Grimshaw from Practical Action UK spoke. Practical Action is an intermediate technology development group, that amongst other things (together with UK think tank Demos), is currently conducting a series of ‘nanodialogues’ in Zimbabwe – the idea is to let people imagine how nanotechnology could be used to solve Zimbabwe’s water problems. You can see the Demos discussion here or  click here for another discussion on Scidevnet. I can’t wait for an in depth report on this very interesting venture,initial indications seem that the dialogues were sobering.

David raised in his talk the issue that risk governance must transcend risk in the narrow sense and include citizen’s participation and deliver to human needs (what he calls fair technology). David also asked the British Government representative how you know when a voluntary code is not working. We are still waiting for the answer.

Further podiums discussions revealed a number of interesting thoughts:Ortwinn Renn suggested that the role of NGO’s is that of an independent watchdog, being part of the appraisal team and the evaluation phase. Well I am glad to have numerous roles. He also pointed out that risk suffers from cultural perception bias e.g. what is acceptable in one culture is not so acceptable in another. While this is undoubtedly true I would have thought that the political regime has a greater bearing on risk e.g. if you live in a totalitarian state like China or Burma you as a citizen are probably subjected to greater risk exposure from a variety of things then if you live in Australia.

Richard Denison from Environmental Defense raised the interesting point whether we need risks without clear benefits.

Themes: GMO, asbestos…

One theme that kept popping up again and again was the fear that the GMO disaster would repeat with nanotechnology. There was the deeply engrained believe that if only the public discourse around the issue of genetically modified organisms had been better managed and had not slid off into mass hysteria (and I am quoting here) then society as a whole would be so much better off, world hunger would have been stopped by now and anyway GMO’s were 150% safe as there was no evidence of danger what so ever. Yes I admit I, I was astonished at these pronouncements.  Interestingly many of the pro GMO proponents (e.g. government reps) are reappearing in the nanotechnology arena.  Will history repeat itself?

Yes, the spectre of asbestos was mentioned a few times, I guess insurance industries would prefer not to repeat this one. But quite frankly without swift and determined regulation we will.

And finally what about the terrible risk of not doing nanotechnology….Well what can I say, maybe we would actually have a safer and happier world.


A main component of the conference were stakeholder specific workshops on the IRCG proposal. There were two workshops: one on the frame 1 proposal (so called passive nano structures), one on frame 2 proposal (more active nano structures).

Somewhat amusingly the government workshop proclaimed: “We need to be better at appearing transparent