Nanotech and the Precautionary Prince

Prince Charles’ concerns about the emerging revolution in nanotechnology (what ETC group prefers to call Atomtechnology) have catapulted tabloid headlines about “grey goo” (and impending doom) onto front pages around the world.1 Industry fears that the great GMO (genetically modified organisms) debate is about to go down to the nanoscale inhabited by atoms and molecules. Despite being one of the world’s best-funded new technologies, nanotech is still little known or understood outside scientific and business circles – and even less regulated by governments. While grey goo makes great headlines, many are probably still scratching their own grey goo wondering what the fuss is about.
The Precautionary Prince: According to news reports, Prince Charles’ concerns stem in part from his reading of The Big Down, an ETC Group report on nanoscale technologies (see www.etcgroup.org for the full text and related studies). Only four pages of the 80-page study discuss the prospect of molecular manufacturing (which, if possible and allowed out of control, could lead to the grey goo scenario). Jim Thomas of the ETC Group’s UK office explains, “Although Prince Charles hasn’t talked with us, he did order several copies of The Big Down. It seems reasonable to assume that he is aware of the full range of issues addressed in the study. These include the health and environmental implications of nanoparticle manufacture, the implications for national economies and employment, the potential for technology monopolies as well as the future of molecular self-assembly. In fact, these are the same issues we will be discussing at a seminar in the European Parliament in Brussels on June 11th 2003 [see box below].” In so doing, the Prince is simply observing the precautionary approach for environmental safety that has been recognised by governments through the United Nations. News of the Prince’s interest has galvanized industry (and some scientists) to try to marginalise St. James’ Palace by arguing that the Prince’s concerns are either non-existent, centuries distant, or exist only in pulp fiction. But the virulent attacks against the Prince may only be the latest of a series of technical and tactical mistakes made by nanotech’s over-eager proponents.

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