Global norms and values for nanotechnology

Knowledge brokering11 Jun 201001/01/1967 01/01/1967

This year, the European Commission is evaluating the implementation of the code of conduct for nanoresearch by European Union member states. In the Netherlands, Nanopodium and KIVI NIRIA will organize a conference about it in November.

Nanotechnology can be applied in almost any imaginable product or system. Small particles and devices can be made and materials structured at the level of nanometres (10-9 metres, a thousandth of a micron, or a millionth of a millimetre or a billionth of a metre) using different techniques. This is the size of atoms and molecules, the smallest building blocks of matter.

The European Commission has been playing a leading role in the development of a global code of conduct for nanotechnology for several years. The European code is a step in that direction. The present differences in national legislation regularly lead to trade conflicts, e.g. about genetically modified food. Since nanotechnology may be applied in almost any imaginable product, the development of international norms is very important. The main purpose of the global code of conduct for nanotechnology is the harmonization of national legislation. Under these conditions, Dutch products may be sold in the United States or China, and vice versa. In the absence of international norms for nanotechnology, and while the research community does not pay much attention to national borders, an additional code of conduct for nanotechnology research may be worthwhile, similar to corporate social responsibility in developing countries. The international research community is made responsible for the quality and societal acceptability of nanoresearch.

Even in Europe, national differences remain, e.g. in the case of human embryonic stemcells. One can expect similar differences in the area of medical and bionanotechnology. But is it fair to make the scientific world pay for the inability of politicians to reach agreement? A voluntary code of conduct for nanoresearch only makes sense in the framework of a solid and harmonized international legal system. Governments worldwide: do your duty!