Nanoethics gets some ethical scrutiny

An essay that appeared in the Spring 2007 edition of The New Atlantis entitled â''Nanoethics as a Discipline?â'' is one of the most clear and insightful reports I have yet seen on the state of the all the social, ethical, legal and environmental hullabaloo that has been surrounding nanotechnology for the past few years.

It spares no one, nor should it, in revealing all the weirdness that has transpired in this newly emerging â''disciplineâ''.

This, of course, has raised the measured ire of those who are either directly or indirectly the target of this probing essay, with telling titles to their rebuttals like â''A Necessary Absurdityâ''. Personally, the only necessary absurdity I can think of is a Monty Python sketch.

But I suppose itâ''s all fine and good if people want to set up â''think tanksâ'' to muse over thought experiments about what might, or might not, happen and how to best handle these various scenarios, but is this really the best use of time and resources in an emerging field?

The author, Adam Keiper, rightly emphasizes the lack of progress in determining the safety of engineered nanomaterials, quoting the Royal Societyâ''s disappointment that their recommendations made in 2004 have not been pursued in greater earnest.

However, I am not sure that the research into the toxicology of nanomaterials is quite as â''fundamentally disorganizedâ'' as he claims. I think the appearance of disorganization may be the product of this being an international issue with the need to take many regulatory bodies into accountâ''not just the US ones.

But Keiper finds hope in a group of toxicologists proposing a research agenda that will focus these efforts:

â'¢ Development of instruments for detecting nanomaterials in air and water

â'¢ Methods for evaluating the toxicity of nanomaterials

â'¢ New ways to predict and evaluate the effects of nanomaterials â''from cradle to grave

Pursuing this agenda may or may not bring order to the chaos Keiper perceives. It seems the issue is as much bureaucratic as anything else. But these tools are needed, and it seems to be one of the best places to start for determining the real hazard of engineered nanomaterials.

It seems a more fruitfulâ''and perhaps more ethicalâ''course of effort than considering the ethical challenges of some technology that may not even come into existence.

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