[ RadSafe ] Nature Commentary: Is there such a thing as a 'safe technology'?

John Jacobus crispy_bird at yahoo.com
Tue Nov 21 08:14:16 CST 2006

While the article referenced considers nanotechnology,
I think that some of the ideas considered below might
be of interest.  This article can be found at 

The article on nanotechnology can be found at
Published online: 15 November 2006
Is there such a thing as a 'safe technology'?

As scientists debate the risks of nanotech, Philip
Ball warns that the major impacts of emerging
technologies have rarely been spotted in advance.

Philip Ball
In today's issue of Nature, an international team of
scientists presents a five-point scheme for "the safe
handling of nanotechnology"1. "If the global research
community can rise to the challenges we have set,"
they say, "then we can surely look forward to the
advent of safe nanotechnologies."

The five targets that the team sets for addressing
potential health risks of nanotechnologies are
excellent ones, involving the assessment of
toxicities, prediction of impacts on the environment,
and establishment of a general strategy for
risk-focused research. In particular, the goals are
aimed at determining the risks of engineered
nanoparticles — how they might enter and move in the
environment, to what extent humans might be exposed,
and what the consequences of that will be. We need to
know all these things with some urgency.

But what is a 'safe technology'? Using such criteria
you might, for example, conclude that manufacturing
nuclear warheads is 'safe' if no human is exposed to
dangerous radiation in the process that leads from
centrifuge to silo.

To be fair, no one denies that a technology's 'safety'
depends on how it is used. Yet history must leave us
with little confidence that research programmes or
public debates will anticipate all, or even the major,
social impacts of a new technology. 

Watch out!

We smile now at how anyone believed that road safety
could be addressed by having every automobile preceded
by a man waving a red flag. In those early days, the
pollution caused by cars was barely on the agenda, and
the notion that traffic might affect global climate
would have seemed positively bizarre.

It is something of a cliché now to say that neither
the internal combustion engine nor smoking would ever
have been permitted if we knew then what we know now
about their dangers. But the point is that we never
do. It is hard to identify a single important
technology for which the biggest risks were clear in

And even if dangers are clear, scientists generally
lose the ability to do anything about it. Nuclear
proliferation was forecast and feared by many of the
Manhattan Project physicists, but politicians and
generals treated their proposals for avoiding it with
contempt (give away secrets to the Russians, indeed!).
It took no deep understanding of evolution to foresee
the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but
that didn't prevent profligate over-prescription of
the drugs. The dangers of global warming have been
known since at least the 1980s, and... well, say no

In the case of nanotechnology, there have been
discussions of, for example, its likelihood of
increasing the gap between rich and poor nations, its
impacts on surveillance and privacy, and the social
effects of nanotech-enhanced longevity. These are all
noble attempts to look beyond the pure science, but
it's not at all clear that they will turn out to be
the most relevant issues.

Safe for play

Part of the impetus for aiming to address the 'risks'
of nanotech so early in the game comes from a fear
that potentially valuable applications could be
derailed by a public backlash.

What scientists must avoid, however, is giving the
impression that emerging technologies are like toys
that can be 'made safe' before being handed to a
separate entity called society to play with. 

Technologies are one of the key drivers of social
change, for better or worse. They simply do not exist
in isolation of the society that generates them. Not
only can we not foresee all their consequences, but
some of those consequences aren't present even in
principle until culture, sociology, economics and
politics (not to mention faith) enter the arena.

Some technologies are no doubt intrinsically 'safer'
or 'riskier' than others. But the more powerful they
are, the less able we are to distinguish which is
which, or to predict how that will play out in
practice. Let's by all means look for obvious dangers
at the outset — but scientists must also look for ways
to become more engaged in the shaping of a technology
as it unfolds, and to dismantle the now-pervasive
notion that all innovations must come with a
'risk-free' label.

Visit our newsblog to read and post comments about
this story. 
MaynardA., et al. Nature, 444. 267 - 269 (2006). |
Article |

"Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" 

>From "The New Collossus" by Emma Lazarus

-- John
John Jacobus, MS
Certified Health Physicist
e-mail:  crispy_bird at yahoo.com

Sponsored Link

Online or Campus degree Associate's, Bachelor's, or Master's
in less than one year.www.findtherightschool.com

More information about the RadSafe mailing list