July 10, 2004

The Precautionary Prince II

Prince Charles’ cautionary note brings “control and ownership” of nanotechnology, social issues and impacts on the South to the fore

“Prince Charles’ thoughtful article in the Independent on Sunday (UK) is an impressive service to society and science in the unfolding public debate on nanotechnology,” according to Jim Thomas of the ETC Group’s Oxford office. “Not only does the Prince set aside the fictional notion of ‘grey goo,’ but he also sensibly reminds us that there are important unanswered questions relating to the control and ownership of these technologies,” said Thomas.

Go here to view the Prince’s article on nanotechnology: http://argument.independent.co.uk/commentators/story.jsp?story=539977 (link no longer active)

From ETC’s international headquarters in Ottawa, Canada, Pat Mooney, Executive Director, adds, “It is especially significant that the Prince highlights the need for a precautionary approach, the need for a wider societal debate and draws attention to what nanotechnology may mean for the gap between rich and poor nations.”

ETC Group is concerned about the potential for emerging technologies to destabilize the economies of poor countries in the global South, which could imperil the livelihoods of workers and basic producers everywhere. Until now, points out Mooney, the debate has focused narrowly on health and environmental concerns. “As important as these issues are, the regulations that will address them will no doubt be heavily influenced by whoever owns and controls nanotech. When 26 governments met in Washington last month to discuss nanotechnology development, the emphasis was on environmental safety regulations and not on the regulations needed to prevent new corporate monopolies and technology cartels; nor to critical new issues related to human rights, privacy, and military applications.” In the view of the ETC Group, the Prince’s article sets out the global landscape that will engage not only the United Nations but also all of civil society in the debate on this new technological revolution.

The ETC Group dismisses the threat of “grey goo” – where self-replicating nano-scale robots run amok – as a red herring. But serious attention must focus on the rapidly advancing field of nanobiotechnology, the current darling of nanotech venture capitalists. Nanobiotechnology refers to the merging of the living and non-living realms at the nano-scale to make hybrid materials and organisms. Researchers aim to harness nature’s self-replicating ‘manufacturing platform’ for industrial uses – rather than try to engineer robots to mimic it. According to ETC Group, it’s the spectre of “Green Goo” – not “Grey Goo” – that poses an urgent need for foresight and caution. 

In his article, Prince Charles asks if there is a danger of awarding patents on Nature. “The answer is yes,” according to Hope Shand, Research Director of ETC Group based in Carrboro, North Carolina, USA. “We’re already seeing monopoly patents on the building blocks of nature.” Glenn Seaborg, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, set a dangerous precedent when he won US patent #3,156,523 for the chemical element Americium (element no. 95 on the periodic table) in 1964. A front-page article in the Wall St. Journal last month reports on the “intensifying race” to file nanotech patent applications. In the US alone, the number of nanotech patents awarded annually has tripled since 1996. [1]Major nanotech patent holders include IBM, L’Oréal, Dow, Xerox, Philips Electronics, Sony, Proctor & Gamble, University of California and Rice University, among others. The US government predicts that nanotech markets will exceed $1 trillion by 2011.

“With governments worldwide spending [US]$5-6 billion per year on nanotech R&D, virtually all Fortune 500 companies involved, scores of products on the market and hundreds more in the pipeline, the questions raised by Prince Charles – such as who wins and who loses? what are the risks and who will bear them? – are extremely relevant,” adds Shand.


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