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House Panel Hears Nanotechnology Concerns

The public's concerns about the societal and ethical impact of nanotechnology must be addressed for the technology to flourish, witnesses told the House Science Committee Wednesday.

The panel was considering the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 (H.R. 766), which would create a national nanotechnology research and development program and authorizes $2.1 billion over three years for the program.

"We have the opportunity to consider the possible social, legal, ethical, and philosophical issues that might arise as the nanotechnology industry matures. Similar opportunities were missed in molecular genetics and the development of the Internet, and now we wrestle with issues such as genetic screening, privacy, and intellectual property," said Rep. Mike Honda (D.-Calif.). "The challenges that can arise are numerous and complex. We need to establish an advisory board made up of experts whose sole responsibility is to deal with unintended consequences -- before they occur."

Honda is a co-sponsor of the legislation with Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R.-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee. The bill is scheduled for a vote by the end of April with possible consideration on the House floor in early May.

Boehlert said the consequences of nanotechnology should be approached "with even-handedness and humility. With evenhandedness because technology, like most human endeavors, inevitably leads to both positive and negative consequences. The one thing we can be sure of is that nanotechnology will be neither the unalloyed boon predicted by technophiles nor the unmitigated disaster portrayed by technophobes. The truth will be in between, and it is worth probing."

Dr. Vicki L. Colvin, director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology and Associate Professor of Chemistry at Rice University discussed recent concerns about nanotechnology and mentioned Michael Crichton's novel Prey, "a chilling scenario in which swarms of nano-robots-equipped with memory, solar power generators, and powerful software-begin preying on living creatures and reproducing. This may be gripping science fiction; it is not science fact."

Colvin said Crichton's novel does, however, highlight "a reaction that could bring the growing nanotechnology industry to its knees: fear. The perception that nanotechnology will cause environmental devastation or human disease could itself turn the dream of a trillion-dollar industry into a nightmare of public backlash."

H.R. 766 includes a provision that establishes a research program to identify societal and ethical concerns related to nanotechnology and requires that such research be integrated into nanotechnology R&D programs insofar as possible. The National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation both recently recommended such an approach.

While there have been calls to half nanotechnology research and development, Christine Peterson, president of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Foresight Institute warned against that approach.

"Today, both public and private spending on nanotechnology is broadly international. Expected economic and military advantages are driving a technology race already underway. If law-abiding nations choose to delay nanotechnology development, they will relinquish the lead to others," said Peterson.