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Emerging Conceptual, Ethical and Policy Issues in BionanotechnologyReview - Emerging Conceptual, Ethical and Policy Issues in Bionanotechnology
by Fabrice Jotterand (Editor)
Springer, 2008
Review by Rob Harle
May 5th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 19)

This is a very important book. The general public really have no clear idea of what will happen in the next twenty years regarding medical care, privacy of an individual's most personal medical details and the manipulation of life. Fabrice Jotterand has brought together a collection of essays which both, bring these issues to our attention in a non-dramatic, non-alarmist way, and secondly, suggest ways of handling the inherent potential of a nanotechnological juggernaut.

Without exception all essays are well written and well researched. Although primarily intended for the academic community I believe the book is still quite accessible to the general reader. The essays are not laden with abstruse technological jargon, all progress logically, introducing the various aspects of bionanotechnology, and conclude with clear summaries of their respective discussions. Even if the prospective reader has only a vague idea of nano-science if they proceed slowly, after finishing the book they will be well informed on most concerns regarding bio-nano-technological-science.

The book is divided into four sections with fourteen essays after a general Introduction.

1 -- Knowledge Production in Nanotechnoscience. This section
discusses the nature of nanotechnology and critically looks at the development and conceptual issues involved from a mainly philosophical perspective. The general reader will perhaps find this section the most academically orientated.

2 -- Ethics and (Bio)Nanotechnology. Section two looks at the relationship of ethics to the various areas of nanoscience, exploring the notion that whilst the subject "nanotechnology" is new and unprecedented the ethical considerations involved can come from our existing ethical systems. It is generally concluded that there may be areas where traditional ethics will need expansion and development but that a totally new ethics is not required to regulate and guide the growth and implementation of nanotechnology. "Almost all of the ethical issues tackled in the section above are topics that were relevant to biomedical ethics long before the development of biomedical nanotechnology. This suggests that when it comes to nonotechnology there is "nothing new under the sun of ethical reflection". (p. 78)
3 -- Public Policy and (Bio)Nanotechnology. This section, which to my mind is by far the most important, looks at legal and public policy issues and how public perception of nanotechnology could ultimately shape policies and regulations. The case of Genetically Modified food is used to show how a misinformed public is as potentially detrimental to technological advances as an uninformed public. Many possible benefits of GM food have been lost because of the misinformed public outcry against such unnatural food source manipulation.
4 -- Human Enhancement and (Bio)Nanotechnology. Probably the most frightening part of the book, this section explores different potential human enhancement scenarios, as distinct from healing outcomes. Will this enhancement, for example neural brain implants to improve memory and learning, actually contribute to "human flourishing"?. This section looks at enhancement particularly from the psychological-behavioral perspective of human attributes and argues that to ignore these in the rush to become superhumans - long lived, without illness and merged intimately with machines -- is fraught with danger.

The focus of this book is on the application of nanotechnology in the biomedical sciences, not in economics, military applications or the building industry for example. (p. 5)  The book does not have the intention of providing comprehensive, practical ethical guidelines for the future implementation of nanotechnologies, but as the title suggests the issues discussed are emerging. As such it fulfils its purpose very well and I doubt if there is another book which is as comprehensive in its general coverage of the issues involved in this so called "latest scientific revolution". Some suggest it will be far more powerful than the Industrial Revolution or our current Computer Information Revolution.

Putting the melodramatic hype aside regarding the claims of extremely miraculous benefits, and conversely, the worst disaster predictions for nanotechnology applications, there are real issues which need regulations and guidelines in place before nanothings are released upon us willy nilly. Even the notion of putting guidelines in place beforehand is discussed in detail in various sections in this volume. However, my criticism of not only the essays in this book, but of academic literature generally "regarding risk-benefit assessments" is that almost without exception authors use the word we thoughtlessly. We need to develop ...... We should assess ........ Just who is this we? This is not a trivial criticism and I suggest it is perhaps the most important aspect of the whole issue.

Clearly we the general public cannot trust these decisions, which effect the global human community, to be made alone by, governments, multi-national corporations (especially pharmaceutical ones), independent research laboratories or scientists. These groups are either serving their own profit or power agendas or are myopic to the big picture. The case of the cure for stomach ulcers will suffice to make my point. Warren and Marshall, now Nobel Laureates, struggled for years to have their research findings of the true cause of stomach ulcers accepted. They were legally out-manoeuvred and out-funded by drug companies whose only agenda was to keep selling drugs such as Tagamet, which was not a cure but a band-aid approach. Tagamet was the first drug to break the $1 billion annual sales mark!

One possibility to help overcome this complex, potentially dangerous and urgent problem is for scholars to engage in deep research into the concept of "trans-science courts" as first articulated by Kantrowitz and then further developed by Weinberg in the mid-seventies. Briefly this concept sees a court style assessment of technology risks conducted by a large cross-section of individuals from all walks of life, some experts, some general public and so on. This system may not be perfect but it does have a semblance of democracy, public participation and removes the temptations of insidious control for profit-only agendas from those who have no right to make such decisions on our behalf.

Jotterand briefly mentions this public engagement concept, though not in any detail, more so from the point of view of not alienating the public from the potentially good things medical nanotechnology could bring. (p. 4)  Quite a few of the essays suggest public input is desirable but they do not as mentioned provide ways to bring this about "An open dialogue must be present between scientists, physicians, patients, and the public at large" (p. 126) How and who could possibly make this happen?

I think this book will become a core text for students in the relevant disciplines and I suggest should be compulsory reading for those who are in any way involved in policy decision making in the medical health care system. Perhaps the publishers of this book could consider a companion volume. This could take the next step and present scholarly essays on the practical ways to engage a cross-section of society, perhaps in "trans-science courts", to provide ethical frameworks and guidelines for the development and implementation of bionanotechnology.

© 2009 Rob Harle

Rob Harle is an artist and writer, especially concerned with the nature of consciousness and high-body technologies. His current work explores the nature of the transition from human to posthuman, a phenomenon he calls the technoMetamorphosis of humanity. He has academic training in philosophy of mind, comparative religious studies, art and psychotherapy. Rob is an active member of the Leonardo Review Panel. For full biography and examples of art and writing work please visit his web site: http://www.robharle.com


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