EC code of conduct for responsible nanotechnology

Peace & Security29 Jun 2010Noela Invernizzi

The EC Code of Conduct for Responsible Nanotechnology is broader than other existing voluntary codes of conduct on nanotechnology. It stands out by the unambiguous adoption of the precautionary principle; by the clear delimitation of research areas that should not be promoted; by its commitment to public engagement in nanotechnology governance; by its concern with social and ethical implications of nanotechnologies in addition to risk issues; and, of course, by its potential to influence the nanotechnology policies of several countries in the European region. Some tensions, however, are present in the document.

One is the tension between science and society, given the increasing social concern and scientific controversy regarding emerging technologies over the past two decades. The second one is the tension between the commitment to benefit/protect society and market forces. These tensions may hinder or limit the success of the Code of Conduct in assuring a responsible development of nanotechnology. For this reason, I will propose a couple of discussion topics permeated by these tensions.

1. The EU Code of Conduct emerged in a context in which scientific evidence regarding the risks of nanotechnology for human health and the environment was limited and contradictory, and therefore insufficient to clearly define such risks to establish specific regulation. For this reason, the code is based on the precautionary principle. However, evidences on risks reported in scientific journals have been increasing since then. There is an expectation that the advance of science will provide clear, uncontestable evidence on the risks of nanotechnologies to improve the code (and eventually establish mandatory regulation if needed).

However, as with many other recent emerging technologies, scientific controversies are starting to come out regarding the potential risks of nanotechnology. The controversy regarding its social and ethical implications may be even more heated. Scientific controversies are nurtured not only by scientific disagreement or contradictory evidence, but also by different social interests and values regarding the development of a particular technology.

Can a voluntary code of conduct successfully galvanize diverse social groups, with different and sometimes contradictory interests and values, in the context of emerging controversies on nanotechnology risks and implications? Or will these different social groups’ views on nanotechnology’s risks and social implications grow apart, each one supported by different scientific evidence, as has happened with GMOs and climate change?

2. The EU Code of Conduct intends to maximize nanotechnology benefits for society while protecting it from potential harm and unethical conducts. This goal will be accomplished as far as the code is broadly adopted by public and private research endeavours. Public research institutions may be easily stimulated by governments to adopt the code through science policy and funding. But why would European companies be interested in adopting the EU Code of Conduct on Nanotechnology? How might the adoption/not adoption of the code influence their competitiveness strategies and the global market parameters of competitiveness? In order to support the discussion of these issues, consider some trends in both directions (adoption/not adoption) that are already on course:

Some centrifuge forces are:

  • Other voluntary mechanisms have failed because companies didn´t collaborate (e.g. EPA Nanomaterials Stewardship Program, US; DEFRA´s Voluntary Reporting Scheme, UK).
  • Some big companies are designing their own, more limited, codes of conduct (e.g. DuPont, BASF, Bayer), perhaps trying to avoid or influence future enforced regulation.
  • In spite of the evidence on risks, and failures in current regulation to address some aspects of nanotechnology, companies have put more than a thousand products on the market (according to the rather conservative Woodrow Wilson Center inventory of nanotechnology consumer products), as well as several intermediate materials.

Other forces, however, may convince the companies to adopt the code:

  • Financial capital pressures. Insurance companies are reluctant to insure nanotechnology companies to avoid losses and litigations, given the unknown risks. They are calling for clear regulation (e.g. Swiss Re, 2004; Lloyd´s, 2007, Continental Western Insurance Group, 2008). Some investor groups are calling for transparency to inform investors on potential risks (The Investor Environmental Heath Network, 2008).
  • Production capital pressures. Some industrial organizations are asking for standards and certification of intermediate and final goods (ISO, 2005; American Association for Testing and Materials, 2006; Cenarios Certification Standard, 2008, Rusnano–Nanocertifica, 2008)
  • Organized social groups’ pressures. Several NGOs (ETC Group, 2002; Friends of the Earth Australia, 2006; Practical Action, 2006; Greenpeace, 2007; International Center for Technology Assessment et al, 2007), consumers associations (ASECO, 2006; Forum for Food Sovereignty, 2007; Consumers Union, 2007) and trade unions (ACTU, 2005, 2009; IUF, 2007; ETUC, 2008; Holland FNV, 2008) are demanding oversight on nanotechnology. Some of them have asked for a moratorium on research and/or products until regulation on risks exist.
  • Political pressures – the EU Parliament Environmental Committee’s (2009) non-binding report calls for products containing nanotechnology that are already in the market to be withdrawn until safety assessment can be made (‘no data, no market’).