A Review of "A Big Discussion about Small Things"

By Michael Edmonds 18/02/2011

On Wednesday evening I went along to “A Big Discussion about Small Things” a panel discussion about the pros and cons of nanotechnology. Some background information can be found here.

The discussion was hosted by Kim Hill who, sharp as ever, did a wonderful job keeping the panelists in line and pouncing on any poor or misleading arguments.

The discussion began with a general description of what nanotechnology involves, given by Sciblogs own (Professor) Shaun Hendy. Shaun also outlined some of the benefits of nanotechnology. Dr Sally Gaw, an environmental chemist at the University of Canterbury then outlined some of her concerns regarding nanotechnology, particularly a perceived lack of interest and funding for determining the effects of nanotechnology, particularly nanoparticulates in the environment. Hans Van der voorn, Chairman of Izon Science Technology, an New Zealand nanotechnology company then discussed nanotechnology from a commercial point of view suggesting that the benefits of nanotechnology are likely to make incremental changes in science and technology and also suggesting that nanotechnology is often overhyped.

The next speaker was a representative from ERMA, whose first name was Peter but I can’t recall his last name. Ifelt a little sorry for him trying to present current ERMA policies on nanotechnology which were perceived by some of the panelists as fairly weak and over-reliant on overseas agencies. Kim Hill certainly pounced on this weakness trying to draw out a clearer explanation on how ERMA deals with nanotechnology. Peter’s suggestion that ERMA waits until there is an indication of harm before examining a product did not go down particularly with the audience.

Dr James Ataria, an ecotoxicologist from Landcare Research provided a Maori perspective on nanotechnology. The last panel member, Georgia Miller, is the Co-ordinator of the Friends of the Earth nanotechnology project and focused on the cons of nanotechnology, beginning by criticising the many markedly different and conflicting definitions of nanotechnology used to excite and reassure the public, however, Kim did point out that this was somewhat irrelevant. Georgia then provided a very persuasive argument suggesting that government monitoring and regulation of nanotechnology is weak and that there is danger in progress in nanotechnology being driven by commercial interests and not properly regulated. A very convincing argument.

After each member had made their points vigorous discussion then ensued, directed by Kim Hill and this was then followed by questions from the audience (although some questions were more like very long statements which received a “telling off” from Kim).

The majority of the discussion focused on nanoparticulates, rather than the wider field of nanotechnology, however because this is where most of the concern lies it certainly didn’t detract from the event. My conclusions from the discussion are that while there is much potential value in nanotechnology, some potential benefits are probably being overhyped, and that perhaps we should be more concerned over the (lack of) regulation and monitoring that is in place to keep track of nanotechnology as it enters the market and the environment.