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Last Updated: Friday, 25 February, 2005, 14:24 GMT
UK orders another nanotech review
Nanotechnology is the subject of a major exhibition at London's Science Museum

The UK government has responded to one major report into nanotechnologies by ordering another review.

Science minister Lord Sainsbury said it would ensure current regulations that safeguard the environment and people's health remained robust.

The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineers' July 2004 report recommended tighter UK and European regulation over some aspects of the tiny science.

Nanotech manipulates molecules and even atoms to make novel materials.

This precision engineering exploits unusual electrical, optical and other properties.

Lord Sainsbury said he wanted the UK to be a "world leader" in the development and regulation of nanotechnologies.

He stressed it was vital that concerns and gaps in knowledge about nanoscience - which could bring sweeping benefits to society - were covered at an early stage.

But he admitted that the future social impacts of the science were "unknown", adding: "We are at the same stage today as we were in the 1940s with computers."

No more money

The Royal Society told the BBC News website it was encouraged by the government's commitment to research, but was disappointed that no extra funding was proposed for it.

"Overall, we are pleased that the government recognises that, alongside the benefits of nanotechnologies, there are also some potential risks," said Professor Anne Dowling, chair of the working group which produced the initial report.

"Until we fill in the gaps in knowledge of manufactured nano-particles, it will not be possible to get sound regulation.

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"The government thinks research is urgently needed, yet there is no commitment to new money to fund it," she said.

The Royal Society had hoped too that a dedicated national nanotechnologies research centre would be set up, rather than the proposed group, to be chaired by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).

Lord Sainsbury said the new cross-government group would co-ordinate all aspects of research into nanoscience to underpin safety assessments.

Professor Dowling added that during the Royal Society's evidence-gathering for its report, government bodies said that they did not have sufficient funds in existing budgets to cover extra research.

A programme of research into the risks and benefits of nanoscience will be announced in the autumn.

Professor Dowling said it was unfortunate that it was going to take so long to be put in place.

Richard Jones, Sheffield University professor and author of an Economic and Social Research Council report into the social and economic impact of the science, told the BBC News website he too was disappointed there was no promise of extra funding.

How nanotechnology is building the future from the bottom up

Groups critical of the government's approach to nanotechnologies expressed frustration that there was no concrete new regulation proposed.

Campaigner Jim Thomas, from the ETC Group, said there needed to be much more commitment to the possible immediate risks of nanotech already in use.

There are more than 400 products on the market which make use of nanotechnologies in some way.

Nanoscale coatings are used to make stronger tennis rackets, clothes that are stain resistant, and windows that clean themselves.

To get an idea of the nanoscale, a human hair is about 80,000 nanometres wide. One nanometre is about a million times smaller than the diameter of a pinhead.

Nano worry

The potential in this emerging research field is huge but there are also concerns that some new products may have unexpected and damaging effects on human health and the environment.

Lord Sainsbury gave the government's response to the academies' report at the opening of a major new nano exhibition at London's Science Museum.

The UK needs safety and regulatory systems that address public aspirations and concerns and which command public confidence during the development of nanotechnologies
Lord Sainsbury, science minister
He said that it was important to establish a dialogue between the scientific community and the public to explore issues relating to the regulation of nanotechnologies.

The fear has been expressed that nanoscience could experience a backlash similar to that faced by genetically modified crops unless the public is fully engaged in new developments.

"The UK needs safety and regulatory systems that address public aspirations and concerns and which command public confidence during the development of nanotechnologies," Lord Sainsbury explained to his Science Museum audience.

In a separate announcement, a new conglomerate of global firms working in the field was launched, aimed at providing a platform for information about the emerging science and its uses.

The Nanotech Association has 11 corporate members so far, including global medical firm Smith Nephew.

Particle concern

Most areas of nanotechnology pose no new risks to humans, the July 2004 report concluded.

Its most promising role could be in the field of medicine, in drug delivery and diagnostics. Several nano-based drug delivery systems are currently being tested.

But it has been shown that manufactured nano-particles can cross over to areas of the body that larger particulates, which humans are exposed to every day, cannot reach.

Any long-term damaging effects are not known and critics have urged for more stringent research and control in this particular area.

The report recommended that the production of nano-particles, currently used in products like suncreams, should be treated as "new materials".

The government said in its response that proposed new European Union regulations covering the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (Reach) were currently being negotiated and could regulate new materials and chemicals.

Nanotechnology in our lives
1 - Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs) for displays
2 - Photovoltaic film that converts light into electricity
3 - Scratch-proof coated windows that clean themselves with UV
4 - Fabrics coated to resist stains and control temperature
5 - Intelligent clothing measures pulse and respiration
6 - Bucky-tubeframe is light but very strong
7 - Hip-joint made from biocompatible materials
8 - Nano-particle paint to prevent corrosion
9 - Thermo-chromic glass to regulate light
10 - Magnetic layers for compact data memory
11 - Carbon nanotube fuel cells to power electronics and vehicles
12 - Nano-engineered cochlear implant


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