On June 17-18 2004, a first intergovernmental dialogue on "Responsible Research and Development of Nanotechnology" convened in Washington with representatives from 26 countries. In his introductory remarks, Mike Roco of the US government’s National Science Foundation explained that the meeting was dedicated to the examination of broad societal issues that cannot be addressed by any single country. Roco asked: "How can we prepare our world for the emergence of nanotechnology?"(1)
"The reality is that it’s too late for governments to suggest they’re being pro-active. Hundreds of nanotech products are commercially available, countless more are in the pipeline, and there are no regulations explicitly targeting nanotechnology anywhere in the world," said Pat Mooney, Executive Director of ETC Group." The US National Science Foundation now predicts that the global ‘nano’ market will tip $1 trillion in seven years. Why is it that governments can look only 3-5 years ahead when they’re talking about regulations and social impacts, but when those same governments talk about potential revenues they have a 10-20 year horizon? Remember, it takes at least 8 years to negotiate multilateral agreements. At this point, diplomats are already way behind."
The government representatives who met earlier this month are planning to convene again, possibly before the end of 2004. Before they do they must consider the political realities. Future intergovernmental discussions must be inclusive, transparent and take place under the auspices of the United Nations. A meeting of technical experts from 26 countries is not adequate to address the interests of all countries – whether engaged in or affected by nanotech activities. Although governments in Washington did place the problem/potential for the global South on their agenda, only the ‘Big South’ (Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Korea, Mexico and South Africa) attended.
"By the time governments get around to recognizing the need for a broad societal discussion, it means they’re already in the position of playing catch-up, clean-up – or worse, cover-up," insists Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Group’s Mexico office. "Of course we can’t leave it up to governments – civil society and people’s movements must first be fully engaged in debates about the role of science and technology in society," said Ribeiro.