ethics of nanotechnology: Canadian scientists
Last Updated Fri, 14 Feb 2003 14:12:30
ST. JOHN'S, NFLD. - Scientists say the applications
of nanotechnology include tiny machines that could travel throughout
the body, destroying viruses or cancer cells. But Canadian
bioethicists are calling for more research into the implications of
the new field, before opponents derail it.
Nanotechnology combines biology, physics and engineering to
manipulate atoms and molecules on a microscopic scale. Engineers work
in the scale of a nanometre – one billionth of a metre.
A computer model of a
channel built with carbon nanotubes, less than 100 atoms in
The field is relatively early in its development. Some of the work
seems hard to believe:
- special materials many times stronger than steel for use in
medical and other applications
- a biomolecular motor developed at Cornell has tiny propellers of
nickel fuelled by an energy enzyme
Peter Singer is a physician and director of the University of
Toronto's Joint Centre for Bioethics. He calls nanotechnology the
third huge scientific wave of the last half century, following
information technology and genomics.
Last year alone, the U.S. government spent $2 billion on research
and development of nanotechnology. But Singer said very little of that
was spent on reflecting on how society wants the field to progress, if
"While the science is barrelling forward, the ethics is really
flatlining," said Singer. "That puts these two on a collision course,
and risks the sort of showdown we saw in genetically modified crops."
Open debate should tackle thorny issues
In a paper published in the Feb. 17 issue of British scientific
journal Nanotechnology, Singer calls for governments to spend
more on the thorny issues, including:
- how nanotech might be used to create or gather secret
- the medical ethics of incorporating nanomachines into human
- the effect new nanomaterials might have on the environment
Singer said he wants the research to be done to prevent the field
from being derailed by those with public concerns. Some fear nanotech
will bring corporate control of living systems, and global experiments
"Here's an industry which is growing extremely rapidly, which is
enormous in its impact on society, on employment, on safety, on health
and the environment – good or bad – that's going undiscussed," said
Pat Mooney, executive director of the Winnipeg-based citizens group
Mooney said nanomaterials have already been added to consumer
products such as clear sunscreens and tennis racquets, without what he
considers public scrutiny.
ETC has called for a moratorium on nanotech research and
development until governments establish rules about its application.
"To allow this research to continue and people be exposed to the
materials without any kind of agreement on what's safe and what isn't,
is simply silly," said Mooney.
Both sides say they want a reasoned, open debate fostered by
greater academic research and spending on ethics.
Written by CBC News Online