Renzo Tomellini, Head of Nanotechnology Unit, European Commission

Described as ‘a new industrial revolution’, nanotechnologies have the potential to produce sweeping changes to all aspects of human society. The Commission’s head of the nanotechnology unit, Renzo Tomellini, emphasises that more research must be undertaken into the risks of this new technology.

It seems that researchers have been quite slow to consider
the possible risks of nanotechnology. What do you believe to be the
most serious risks of this emerging, in terms of the environmental
impact, health effects and ethical issues?

Yes indeed. Seen from the point of view of e.g.
material sciences there was no evidence of particular risks created
through nanotechnology. A nano-structured surface, a new paint or
new types of glass do not raise particular fears. Physicists,
chemists and biologists are used to work with dangerous substances
and know that appropriate measures should be taken as “dosis facit
venenum” i.e. the quantity makes the poison. In nanotechnology too,
we need to know what is dangerous and which measures should be
taken.

In line with the research and development of the techniques
associated to nanotechnology, studies are now launched to assess
possible risks. Several studies are ongoing at EU and Member States
level, see e.g. the initiative of the Royal Society in the UK.
Within the 6th framework programme, the next call for proposal in
nanosciences and nanotechnologies requests -where the case-
toxicology studies within the research integrated projects.

Let’s take nanoparticles as an example. Are they dangerous? Or
are there already so many nanoparticles in Nature that the impact
of additional nanoparticles will be negligible? We need to know. We
need research and that is what it is done. For instance, the
Commission is already funding three projects on the impact of
nanoparticles on the human body and also in the future a high
priority will be given to risk assessment in this area.

Ethics is a slightly different case since no experimental
research is normally demanded. The respect of ethical principles is
a priority and we check carefully that all Community-funded
projects respect ethical principles. We are strict on this.
Moreover, ethical implications of nanotechnology are a research
priority in the Science and Society programme.

Given the lack of any clear and universally accepted
guidelines on or research restrictions for nanotechnology, are you
confident that all the necessary precautionary measures are being
taken to assess the potential implications of the technology and
prevent any nasty surprises? In other words, are regulatory regimes
robust enough to deal with any consequences that may arise from
continued research?

Both work in laboratories and work in factories
are regulated in Europe to protect researchers, workers and the
environment. If -however- you mean here the risks of “wrong”
applications of nanotechnology, I would say that we are facing a
situation that is typical for all technologies: iron- and
steel-making may be good or bad. It is not the technology per se
that is critical, but the use of the technology. This may well be
subject to regulations in the future, when needed. At the present
stage of research, it is important that knowledge is gathered,
research is carried out and a due flow of information is ensured so
that no “technological paradises” or “dark research zones” be
created i.e. regions where discoveries can be made outside the
visibility of the international community and applications can be
developed in the absence of any regulatory framework.

There barely seems to be any public debate on the potential
(‘good’ and ‘bad’) implications of nanotechnology at EU-level. Do
you feel that the widening gap between scientific progress and
public awareness could result in a situation where the public
reject the new technology as has happened with the debate on
genetic modification?

This is improving. There are various actions
ongoing in some Member States to improve public awareness and
stimulate a debate. The Commission organises a large conference in
December (

) to be held in Trieste
under the Italian Presidency o f the Union. The EuroNanoForum2003
will see the participation of high level speakers from EU and
non-EU Countries such as USA, Japan, Russia, Switzerland, Israel or
Australia and will be an important occasion to debate issues that
may well trespass the borders of Europe.

Moreover, the Commission has already realised two films
(distributed freely:
http://www.cordis.lu/nanotechnology/home.html)
to explain to a large public what nanotechnology is. One is a
documentary film, whilst the second is dedicated to a younger
general public.

How would you assess the new technology’s long-term
commercial success and public acceptance? In which areas do you see
the biggest potential?

The long-term potential commercial success of
nanotechnology applications is huge. Market values for
nanotechnology are estimated in the order of 1.000 billion between
2010 and 2015. Fields where we can expect to have progress sooner
may be linked to more limited technical difficulties and/or to more
secure market penetration. Some examples might be: surfaces
sciences (e.g. paints, self-cleaning materials), particles and
powders (from tires to creams), electronics (top-down approach),
portable or wearable systems (e.g. batteries or sensors) and
sectors that are less subject to market laws, such as e.g. security
or space. Applications in medical treatments are very promising and
are being intensively and carefully investigated. Bottom-up
solutions, such as e.g. self-organised molecular electronics or new
knowledge-based forms of manufacturing are much farer.

Public acceptance will be bound to two main elements: is
nanotechnology useful? Is it dangerous? We are doing our job so to
provide appropriate knowledge and science-based elements to respond
to these two questions.

This interview represents the opinion of Renzo Tomellini and
not necessarily that of the European Commission.

 

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