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Britain balks at funding safety research

February 25, 2005 By Mark Peplow This article courtesy of Nature News.

Chance to gain trust for nanotechnology may be lost, warn scientists.

Britain must commit funds to regulating nanotechnology, if the public is to trust the nascent science. The warning comes from the country's top scientific body, the Royal Society, which is clearly disappointed by the government's failure to act.

The government has just made its official response1 to a report into the hazards and potential of nanotechnology, delivered in July 2004 by Britain's Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (see ' Size matters when it comes to safety, report warns' ).

The government had the chance to nail this, and they haven't taken it.
Richard Jones
University of Sheffield
The report pointed out that clear, early regulation of an emerging science such as nanotechnology is essential to engender public confidence. It noted that the absence of such regulations is part of the reason why public distrust of genetically modified foods is so strong in Britain.

So scientists and environmental campaigners had high hopes that the government would become the first country in the world to develop clear regulations for the manufacture and use of nanomaterials.

Instead, it has promised to create a committee to investigate current health and safety regulations, and to upgrade them if they do not cover nanotechnology adequately. But the scientists who produced the report have pointed out that no new money has been set aside to investigate the health hazards of nanoparticles.

Cash for questions

"More knowledge is needed to frame those regulations," says Ann Dowling, a mechanical engineer at the University of Cambridge and chairwoman of the group that produced the report. The research (and therefore the regulation) will not happen unless the government earmarks extra money, she adds.

"I think the government had the chance to nail this, and they haven't taken it," adds Richard Jones, a nanotechnology researcher at the University of Sheffield, UK. "There were clear recommendations in the academies' report, and instead the government has set up an interdepartmental committee."

According to a Department of Trade and Industry spokesman, the government plans to announce more detailed plans in the autumn, which may include research funding. "But why should it take that long to support research that it says is urgently needed?" asks Dowling.

A different level

Nanotechnology is the science of the very small, involving particles that are less than 100 nanometres (10-7 metres) across. The academies' original report stated that nanoparticles behave very differently from bulk materials, and therefore need separate toxicity regulations.

"Everyone accepts that nanoparticles pose a different set of environmental and health issues," says Doug Parr, chief scientist at London-based Greenpeace UK. "Government should commit to regulatory action, and get on with it."

"Britain has shown international leadership on the responsible development of nanotechnologies," says Robert May, president of the Royal Society. "It must not squander this by failing to properly fund the research which will underpin appropriate regulation."


  1. H.M. Government Response to the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering Report published online. (2005).


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