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The European Commission has adopted a code of conduct for responsible research in the relatively new fields of nanosciences and nanotechnologies (N&N).
Although Europe is at the vanguard of this promising field of science, many knowledge gaps remain in relation to the impact of these technologies on human health and the environment. Concerns over ethics and the respect of fundamental rights are also linked to N&N.
For these reasons, the Commission has drawn up a voluntary code that covers seven general principles, including sustainability, precaution, inclusiveness and accountability. With the publication of its 'Code of Conduct for Responsible Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies Research', the Commission hopes that universities, research institutes and companies in the EU will sign up and ensure the safe development and use of nanotechnologies.
'Nanotechnologies and nanosciences could very well be the next revolution in enabling technologies, and Europe has a good track record in their development,' said EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik. 'Part of our strength is in the attention we are giving to their responsible development and use. The Code of Conduct is a tool developed by the Commission, after consulting with the public, that will make it very simple to address the legitimate concerns that can arise regarding nanotechnologies.'
The Code of Conduct encompasses seven general principles on which Member States are invited to take concrete action to ensure that nanotechnologies are developed in a safe manner. These are:
- meaning: N&N research activities should be comprehensible to the public. They should respect fundamental rights and be conducted in the interest of the well-being of individuals and society in their design, implementation, dissemination and use;
- sustainability: N&N research activities should be safe, ethical and contribute to sustainable development. They should not harm or threaten people, animals, plants or the environment, at present or in the future;
- precaution: N&N research activities should be conducted in accordance with the precautionary principle, anticipating potential environmental, health and safety impacts of N&N outcomes and taking due precautions, proportional to the level of protection, while encouraging progress for the benefit of society and the environment;
- inclusiveness: governance of N&N research activities should be guided by the principles of openness to all stakeholders, transparency and respect for the legitimate right of access to information. It should allow participation in the decision-making processes of all stakeholders involved in or concerned by N&N research activities;
- excellence: N&N research activities should meet the best scientific standards, including integrity of research and good laboratory practices;
- innovation: governance of N&N research activities should encourage maximum creativity, flexibility and planning ability for innovation and growth;
- accountability: researchers and research organisations should remain accountable for the social, environmental and human health impacts of their work.
Meanwhile, the European Commission has also granted researchers in the EU and US €403,000 to study and regulate nanotechnologies.
'The first generation of nanotechnology applications and products is here. Second-generation uses - in electronics, sensors, targeted drugs and active nanostructures - are emerging,' said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. 'But capabilities of these early nanotechnology products pale in comparison to third- and fourth-generation applications in areas such as robotics, multiscale chemical and bio-assembly and supramolecular structures.'
The other goals of the project include the publication of results that could be applied to policies in both the EU and US, and creating greater awareness among policy-makers about convergence in nanotech regulation.
Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture objects usually measuring between 1 and 100 nanometres. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre; a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometres wide.
According to estimates by the Lux Research group, the market potential of nanotechnology products could be worth up to USD 2.6 trillion (around €1.9 trillion) by 2014.
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