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CRN Offers Qualified Endorsement of Greenpeace Nanotech Report

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology today announced its conditional support of the Greenpeace report, "Future Technologies, Today's Choices", about the risks, benefits, and current status of nanotechnology. "We've heard from extremists on both sides," said Mike Treder, Executive Director of CRN. "Now it's time for sober discussion and serious research. This report clearly is a step forward."

Chris Phoenix, CRN's Director of Research, agreed. "We have to accept that some nanomaterials and nanotechnologies may be hazardous. But we use hazardous materials all the time, safely and beneficially. We'll need to study and decide case by case. We need information and common sense, not panic or denial."

CRN has primarily focused on the benefits and dangers of molecular nanotechnology (MNT), which promises someday to allow flexible atomic-scale manufacture of breakthrough products. "Many have argued, loudly but weakly, that MNT is impossible," said Treder. "The Greenpeace report acknowledges difficulties, but opens the door to consideration of the possibilities."

CRN believes that serious discussion of the consequences of MNT is necessary now. "Progress may happen sooner than people think," said Phoenix. "Once the engineers start working on it, the field could take off very quickly, and its impact could be massive."

Within the next several days, CRN will issue a supplementary commentary on the Greenpeace report, addressing the technical issues that were raised about MNT. Following are specific comments on statements made by Dr. Doug Parr, Greenpeace Chief Scientist, in his Forward to the report:

Greenpeace (GP): "Any technology placed in the hands of those who care little about the possible environmental, health, or social impacts is potentially disastrous."

CRN: Some of those who develop the technology or make use of it will not necessarily be driven to care about its secondary impacts, a situation that is understandable and acceptable. Commercial entities should be motivated by profit and by expansion of market share, which is the way they operate most efficiently and most beneficially to society at large. Scientific entities should be motivated by curiosity and expansion of knowledge. NGO's and governmental bodies at least partially should be motivated by concern for environmental, health, and social impacts -- but putting the technology only in their hands would be counter-productive, leading to a severe slowdown in development (meaning reduced opportunities for humanitarian benefits) and/or a risky monopoly by the military. The quote above represents a simplistic solution, which won't work. A more intelligent approach, involving the efforts and combining the needs of all three groups, is called for.

GP: "Why not hold a citizens jury to determine scientific priorities on nanotechnology?"

CRN: We support this concept, and further suggest that a citizens jury could consider whether a comprehensive feasibility study of advanced molecular nanotechnology (MNT) is in order.

GP: "There is no need for grand, new mechanisms of public involvement to point out the blindingly obvious."

CRN: We disagree that there is no need for new mechanisms of public involvement. If nanotechnology, especially MNT, has as much potential for societal disruption as some predict, then new mechanisms will indeed be required. It may be premature to call for their formation at this time, but it is not too early to begin considering and discussing them. Nanotechnology will have global impact, and global cooperation currently is in short supply.

GP: "With cause for concern, and with the precautionary principle applied, these materials should be considered hazardous until shown otherwise."

CRN: A sensible application of the precautionary principle does not necessarily preclude the use of hazardous materials. Some cases will be easy to decide; others will need more study to determine what's safe and what's risky.

CRN was a non-profit research and advocacy organization, completely dependent on small grants and individual contributions.


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