Nanotechnology and the Uncertainty Principle

No, not that uncertainty principle, but I did get your attention, I hope. No, the uncertainty principle I am referring to here has to do with the idea that behind every human action remains a certain degree of uncertainty, or doubt.

For Professor Simon Brown at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand in a new article for the journal Nature Nanotechnology (subscription required) the inability to accept this uncertainty principle (as I have termed it) lies at the root of calls for more data on the toxicity of nanoparticles.

"[C]alls for more data on the impact of nanomaterials on human health and the environment reflect a failure to accept that there will always be unknowns associated with any new technology. Effective governance of emerging nanotechnologies will require an acknowledgement of these unknowns, an open and adaptive approach to regulation, and the courage to make decisions."

Brown rightly re-examines the term “Deficit Model” and recognizes that not all deficits, such as deficits in information, can be corrected. As the summary of the article on Meridian Institute website says, “In fact, it is unlikely we will ever have detailed toxicology data for each of the (estimated) 50,000 kinds of carbon nanotube, let alone all the other types of nanomaterials.”

I beg to differ somewhat here by pointing out that you may not really need to test every single nanoparticle’s level of toxicity as some can be eliminated from testing requirements or grouped together, etc. But I agree with the fundamental point.

Brown apparently urges “genuine” public engagement. I think I can guess what disingenuous engagement might be, but from what I have seen there have been a lot of earnest and sincere people trying to tackle this issue and all they seem to get in return is a shoulder shrug from John Q. Public.

But what Brown suggests, a type of decision making model that operates without all the facts, will be required if agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decide to determine the toxicity of a material based on its size rather than its chemistry without having some basic tools needed to investigate nanoparticles in living organisms.



IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
Rachel Courtland
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
New York, NY