22nd Oct 2016

EU wants code of conduct for nanotech research

The European Commission has adopted a voluntary code of conduct in the field of nanotechnology research hoping to establish some guidelines in this fast-growing but little-understood research area.

Although in many quarters still thought of as an industry out of science-fiction, nanotechnology – the manufacture of products on an atomic and molecular scale - is already very much up and running, with so-called first-generation nano innovations already on the market in such products as cosmetics, sunscreens, paints, packaging, clothing and varnishes.

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Technology has advanced well ahead of public policy, and the commission hopes to correct this with its "Code of Conduct for Responsible Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies Research".

"Knowledge gaps remain about the impact of these technologies on human health and the environment, as well as issues relating to ethics and the respect of fundamental rights," said the commission in a statement on Friday (8 February).

It is urging member states to adopt the code.

The code covers seven general principles including sustainability, precaution, inclusiveness and accountability, with the commission hoping universities, research institutes and companies, will adhere to ensure the safe development and use of nanotechnologies.

"Nanotechnologies and nanosciences could very well be the next revolution in enabling technologies," said EU research commissioner Janez Potočnik.

"The code of conduct is a tool ... that will make it very simple to address the legitimate concerns that can arise regarding nanotechnologies," he added.

The code requests that nano research activities be comprehensible to the public, performed in a transparent manner, accountable, safe and sustainable and not threatening to the environment.

The code also requests that such research be conducted in accordance with the precautionary principle. This says that when there is the possibility that nanotechnology applications may harm human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken - even if some cause and effect relationships are not yet fully established scientifically.

Because of the technology's potential effects on the environment, green groups have in recent years begun campaigns calling for greater transparency in the research process and an adherence to this principle.

Environmentalists largely welcomed Friday's announcement.

"We do like a lot of the ideas that are in the code of conduct," said Aleksandra Kordecka, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth Europe, "but it really doesn't go far enough, as it's only a voluntary code. It needs to be mandatory."

Ms Kordecka also argues that nano research should be directed more toward applications that are of genuine benefit to everyone, such as nanotechnologies that can neutralise pollution or help with the battle against climate change, rather than "unnecessary" but profitable commercial applications.

"Do we really need research into socks that don't stink?" she said, referring to one potential commercial nano innovation.

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