Bio- & Nano-Technology: who should decide and who will pay?

The convergence of biology, computing and robotics is the kernel of the recent progresses that applications from biotechnology to nanotechnology have produced in relation to their perceived opportunities, risks and challenges. Undoubtedly, human progress depend on the introduction and diffusion of novel and paradigm-changing technologies, but these are not neutral and carry with themselves a plethora of un-intended side-effects. These need to be evaluated seriously and discussed beyond the world of the closed laboratory in order to decide which are the innovations that can be supported and proliferate to be not only more useful, but also less risky for human life, health and the ecosystem.

The FGB, in cooperation with IRER and Observa, was the first in Italy to introduce an innovative policy-making experiment on behalf of the Region of Lombardy to involve a wider public of scientists, entrepreneurs cosumers' associations and citizens to discuss their perceptions and opinions about genetically modified foods. The interest of the Giannino Bassetti Foundation (FGB) in these technologies is not recent and has been demonstrated by hosting of a variety of forums on the perceived risks of the use of biotechnology in agriculture and in particular about genetically modified organisms. More recently, such experiment was successfully repeated also with regards to the dangers of nanotechnology. In general, what emerges from the various interventions and arguments put forward by the various proponents and commentators from both sides of the Atlantic is a general feel that indeed humanity is moving in that direction, but there is a subtle grin in relation to the impossibility to minimise the impact of decisions taken beyond popular control and the importance and actuality of these themes.

This is true as far as biotechnology and biomedicine are concerned. Without reducing the role of participatory experiments for the purpose of making policy decisions in this area, it seems that at least as far as these technologies are concerned more is debated than it is understood. The most frequent imaginary of a Frankenstein, or an out of control experiment still dominates the fears of the citizenry and is amongst the barriers of the adoption of such technologies. This is a fair point to make, but it is not the most compelling risk to be addressed while deciding or debating on the desirability or not of biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. Because in both cases the structural transformations to be realised involve the micro-level functioning of the biological processes involved with the creation and sustenance of human life these should be assessed under a radically different lens. Alias for their potential to transform the very same way of working of natural processes in relation to their environment, not as a result of natural selection, but as a consequence of human intervention.

Indeed the issues that need to be taken into account are of more ample spectrum other than just the reductionist Frankenstein argument. The challenges that these technologies pose are wide ranging and need to be addressed in consideration of at least the following elements:

- the decision-making structure in relation to the development, introduction and diffusion of these technologies on a large scale;
- the governance arrangements between the partners involved in their production, utilisation and delivery; and
- the communication of the responsibility for sharing risks and side-effects in case things go wrong.

For most of their life, breakthroughs probably take shape in the laboratory away from the eyes of the public. No layman has control over scientific experiments so long as they remain within the laboratory. However, when the technology became mature its commercialisation requires the test of the collective. The coordination of a variety of individuals, actors and organisations is paramount to decide the sorts of the innovation. But here is the catch. The current era of innovation proceeds in a non-linear fashion towards the introduction of more and more innovations at a pathbreaking speed. And yet, our society is one hand eminently immature to decide responsibly around these issues while on the other science itself has not provided enough evidence of the future impact of these innovations.

It should not come as a surprise then if, as it emerges in the collaborative policy experiments hosted by the Giannino Bassetti Foundation, perspectives on the risks of the introduction of these technologies are extremely polarised. However, if the perspectives on risk around these matters are polarised it is difficult to generate a sense of ownership for action to address these risks to start with. Thus the importance of extending participation to discuss them in relation to the standpoint of the various stakeholders. At this stage some important questions to consider could be how much of these risks can be transferred or responsibly be allocated among the various actors involved? What is their risk coefficient (alias what is considered to be the acceptable level of risk)? And how can these risks be minimised and/or insured to support technological progress while minimising the most dangerous effects on human life and the ecosystem?

Take the example of nanotechnologies. According to a recent study by Swiss Re on prospects and pitfalls of nanotechnologies what emerges is that while nanoparticles have the potential to become ubiquitous in industrial production (from materials, to electronics, pharmaceuticals and aerospace) the frequency and severity of the risk these carry is very difficult to assess. The lack of specific regulatory guidelines or disclosure obligations combined with the absence of standards is what furtherance the difficulty of dealing with the unsettling uncertainties that such innovation produces. Biotechnologies are also posing similar challenges, and although their promises are fascinating to address issues of famine and undernutrition in developing countries there is still great uncertainty in relation to their pharmacological, nutritional and quality benefits.

Both converge into a common risk pool when - in the words of Prince Charles - 'nanotechnology fascinates scientists with its possibilities to develop minuscule computers and tiny medical devices. But it has also inspired fears about the dangers of nanoparticles and a fictional account of a plague of self-replicating robots turning the world into grey goo'. Therefore the questions raised by the title of this piece are to remain unanswered. Who should decide and who should pay are ongoing themes of the debate surrounding bio and nanotechnologies so long as reliable and regular information can be provided and acted upon so long as innovations in the technological and scientific domain go hand in hand with the improvement of the consultative functions external to public decision-making, democratic procedures and deliberative methods.

See also Vittorio Bertolini's press review in this site on Genetics and Nanotechnology (in Italian) and Gian Maria Borrello entry on Risk study initiatives on nanotechnologies.

(Posted by Daniele Navarra at 12 November, 2004) --- Permalink ---