Small is beautiful, ain’t it? The EU’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies Research

While some see nanotechnology as the solution to our most pressing current
problems, or at least as the basis
for rapid future technological progress, others fear that nanotech might yield unprecedented
catastrophic consequences. Even outside the genre of science fiction, it has
been suggested that nanotech might provide a solution to world poverty and
waste disposal: Tiny robots will convert garbage into nutrition simply by
reorganizing structures on the molecular or atomic level. Also frequently discussed
is the possibility that self-replicating nanobots threaten the existence of our
world by converting all matter into their own kind – a dystopia that has come
to be known as grey goo.

The European Union has now reacted to the hopes
and fears associated with this fairly new technology and provided a code
of conduct
for responsible nanoscience and nanotechnologies research. This
code shall guide scientists, engineers, policymakers, collective as well as
individual agents. Such a code of conduct seems indispensable. However, the tentativeness (e.g. in the form of a
rather vague appeal to the precautionary principle) and the lack of feasibility of its norms (for
example, it argues for a “general culture of responsibility”, see below) actually
raises more general questions about the feasibility of regulating scientific
research and technological progress.

I do not question that scientific research and
technological progress have to be confined by non-scientific values – normative
considerations often play and have to play a central role here. In this short
note, however, I do not want to touch on the question of which normative
regulations of science and technology may be adequate in the context of
nanotechnology; rather I want to point out three major shortcomings of the EU’s
recommendation that point to general difficulties in regulating science and
technology – problems that have to be addressed even if we have abandoned the
Baconian ideal of a science working for the good of humankind.

 

Large parts of the recommendation are not
specific to nanotechnology. The reader and potential user of this guide wonders
why it was not possible to formulate this recommendation as a recommendation
for all modern technologies – this
would save the authors of this and similar recommendations a lot of time and
the tax-payer a lot of money.

Within ethics of technology it has been
discussed for a long time that effective guidance of science and technology
actually would result in a doubling of
competence
 the people determining
the rules of conduct have to have at least the same expertise as the researchers or engineers. The lack of
specific relations to nanotechnology of this EU recommendations are an example
that this indeed seems necessary and is hard to achieve.

 

The demands on the researcher are completely
unrealistic. Nanotechnology is still in its infancy, large parts of its
research are ‘basic’ research. How shall the scientists meet the EU’s demands
to ensure that their work indeed “
contribute[s]
to sustainable development serving the sustainability objectives of the
Community as well as contributing to the United Nations’ Millennium Development
Goals”?

 

Moreover,
the EU recommendation demands a “culture of responsibility” where the whole of society
shall be able to influence the future aims of nanotechnology research. Central to
this is that the research results will have to be communicated not only within
the scientific community, but will have to be made intelligible to the
layperson as well. This might be a reasonable aim – even though if we had applied
this principle rigorously in the past, we might have kept back a lot of
technological innovations we enjoy today. However, this demand does not only pose
an obligation to researchers, it also presupposes a broadly educated public who
are able to follow the discourse in the modern sciences. This in turn implies
an obligation for the policy maker – an obligation to provide adequately good
secondary and higher education and the possibility of relevant life-long
learning, an obligation that is not met neither at national nor at EU level.

 

 

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