ObservatoryNano 2nd Annual Report on Ethical and Societal Aspects of Nanotechnology
Ineke Malsch and Kristian Hvidtfelt-Nielsen, firstname.lastname@example.org
21 April 2010
In the areas of nanobioethics and nanobiotechnology and society, the scientific, public and philosophical and social science debates circulate around five topics: Human Enhancement, Synthetic Biology, Nanomedicine, Agrifood and Animal Testing. These focus areas emerge in policy and stakeholder debate on nanotechnology for health, medicine and biotechnology and nanotechnology for agrifood, two of the ten technology sectors where nanotechnology is being applied which are analysed in the ObservatoryNano project. The assessment in this report is organised from the broadest (human enhancement and synthetic biology) to the narrowest debates (animal testing).
The concepts Human Enhancement and Synthetic Biology have given rise to more general ethical and societal issues discussed by policy makers and stakeholders as well as philosophers and social scientists. Some trends in nanotechnology for Health, Medicine and Biotechnology may have implications for human enhancement or synthetic biology. One aim of the present report is to contribute to better societal embedding of these technologies and their applications. Nanoscientists involved in such research for medical or other purposes do not always take into account the issues in those wider debates. Policy makers, stakeholders and social scientists are not always aware of the actual scientific developments and their implications. They run the risk of discussing only mere science fiction scenarios. Both Human Enhancement and Synthetic Biology have strong dual use potential, including military as well as civilian applications. The civilian applications are broader than healthcare, and include sports and cosmetics. In both cases, widening the divide between rich and poor countries and groups in society is among the major concerns.
There is a current political and stakeholder debate on human enhancement at EU level and in several countries. Especially in the area of Human Enhancement Technologies in Sports, there are initiatives to install Parliamentary bodies for monitoring the developments and governing the developments. Nanotechnology may be applied in some human enhancement technologies, including preventive healthcare and regenerative medicine. Current issues in the philosophical and ethical debate include risks, implications for human self-perception and concepts like health and disability, social injustices, competition spiral and degradation of social norms and values. Incremental and radical enhancements are distinguished, and several authors recommend focusing the debate on short to medium term developments rather than very futuristic scenarios. New issues for debate include different concepts for discussing the human condition and religious viewpoints on human enhancement.
Even though most issues in the current debate on synthetic biology are not related to nanotechnology, some trends in nanobiotechnology may also be affected by the policy measures suggested by the European Group on Ethics and others. The safety of workers in multidisciplinary research labs and of amateur scientists requires constant attention. Governance of intellectual property of new technologies including nanobiotechnology could also benefit from new ideas proposed by the European Group on Ethics and other experts. The EU Code of Conduct for Nanotechnology Research (2008) could serve as an example for a code of conduct for synthetic biology as proposed by EGE. Philosophers reflecting on attempts at creating artificial life place nanotechnology and synthetic biology in a century old tradition in natural sciences to mimic or improve nature. They raise ethical questions like: should everything that scientists are capable of, be allowed?
Nanomedicine is a key area of nanotechnology, with a lot of research activity as well as debates about ethical and societal aspects. At least in Europe, three sub domains are the priorities for public and private investment: nanopharmaceuticals, diagnostics and regenerative medicine. Neuronanoscience may in the future become a fourth research priority in Europe. The stakeholder debate focuses mainly on socio-economic issues such as how to improve Europe’s competitiveness in nanomedicine or nanobiotechnology in general and on how to make available balanced information for medical professionals and patients. The Nanomed Roundtable made the following recommendations to the European Commission and national governments. The deliberation of ethical and societal issues should be complemented with consideration of the feasibility of particular nanomedicine developments. This should be done by assessment of the visions driving nanotechnological developments as well as analyses of relevant cultural, societal and commercial trends. Current issues discussed in ethical and social science literature which should be discussed in broader forums include autonomy and privacy issues related to personalised medicine and access to nanomedicine for deprived populations. In general, there are six areas of relevant ethical issues, including risk assessment in medical research, diagnosis and therapy, questions of personal and human identity, enhancement by possible nanotechnological implants, distribution of risks and potential benefits, which groups are included in clinical trials, and the potential need for rethinking the traditional model of the patient-physician relationship. Philosophers see the need to engage with embedded notions of health, disease, molecular medicine etc and with the normativity of these concepts.
Nanotechnology in agrifood is a separate area. Whereas according to some experts nanotechnology has the potential to contribute to food safety & security, sustainable use of resources and animal welfare, this is contested by others. Stakeholder concerns include consumer choice and transparency regarding products and processes using nanotechnology in the food sector. NGO’s are concerned about the absence of nano-specific safety laws and the lack of public involvement in decision making. Political decision making on nanotechnology in novel foods and nano-labelling of food products is in progress in Europe, but controversies appear to remain especially related to the novel food regulation.
Ethicists and social scientists explored similarities and differences of nanotechnology and GMO’s in agrifood. The different stakeholders discussing nanotechnology have contending perspectives on how their introduction should be governed. Company’s fear of a potential public backlash may inhibit nanotechnology innovation in agriculture and food. The trend that government regulation is increasingly replaced by governance involving debates by stakeholders may have unforeseen societal consequences. Nanotechnology for agrifood applications raises particular privacy issues related to RFID chips and other remotely readable tags for cattle (privacy of the owner) and food products (consumer privacy). New hazards in the form of nano(eco)toxicity may also be introduced. There is a discussion whether animal welfare would be served by modifying animal properties or incorporating sensors and devices in the animal body.
An ethical framework for agricultural technologies proposed by the European Group on Ethics could be used to stimulate balanced reflection on ethical issues of nanotechnology for agrifood applications. Different ethical traditions including consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics and agrarian ethics could also be useful for this.
Nanotechnology may lead to increasing as well as decreasing the need for animal testing in research. The stakeholder debate on nanotechnology and animal testing is currently not very polarised, but in the future animal rights groups may require more effort in developing alternatives for animal testing.
The choice made in this report to focus on discussions closely related to current developments in nanotechnology for medical, biological and agrifood applications makes the findings of this report useful for reflection on choices by the scientific community and policy makers in science and technology policy dealing with nanotechnology. It is less suitable for decision making on priorities in public policies aimed at governing the society as a whole and targeting (nano)science, technology and innovation policy towards the long term sustainable and equitable development of our European and global societies.
 Anticipation of likely future developments including technological as well as societal trends is necessary, but future visions should not be disconnected from actual relevant technological and societal developments.
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