On Risk

March 28, 2007

News of the new online risk-focused journal launched by Rice University’s NSF-funded Center on Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology and associated International Council on Nanotechnology (CBEN and ICON to their friends) is welcome, though I am puzzled why it should be called a “virtual journal.” Isn’t it an actual journal? We are so used to online publications that this seems curious; the kind of decision that must have been made by a committee, perhaps with an old-timer on board who believes real journals need paper and print . . . . Unless, of course, it will be published in Second Life.

The real significance of this news lies in the fact that it is news. The effort to play down the significance of risk – risk of all kinds – in the nanoworld has (with delightful irony; delightful, that is, to those of us who enjoy irony) added more to its risk than anything so far published. The failure of the various relevant U.S. federal government agencies to take serious responsibility for nano risk has left the foes of nano publicly angry but, at least in some cases, privately pleased – for this very reason. It has left the more naive friends of nano pleased too; who wants to have their boat rocked?

Those who would aspire to be non-naive nano friends remain perplexed, since they have a firmer grasp of the deep necessity of violent boat-rocking upstream in the development of the technology if it is going to be found both safe and socially credible. If this is really the ultimately transformative technology, as book after book from the NSF has been telling us with federal authority, one would have thought that a commensurate effort would be put out to ensure not simply that we know all there is to be known about nanotoxicity (and know it fast) but that wider risk issues – arising from the NELSI questions (nano ethical, legal and societal issues, which weighed heavily with Congress when it passed the 2003 nano act) would be funded to the hilt.

There are other initiatives in the risk pipeline, including one from Environmental Defense and DuPont. But back of these particulars, the ultimate risk remains that emerging nanotechnologies will be employed to demean humankind by advancing the “transhumanist” agenda – and/or that the prospect of this future will lead to a neo-Luddism that repudiates benefit and disbenefit alike.

The nanotechnology coalition that launched the first online database
of scientific findings related to the benefits and risks of
nanomaterials has taken the concept one step further with the launch
today of The Virtual Journal of Nanotechnology Environment, Health &
Safety (VJ-Nano EHS). The journal may be accessed at
icon.rice.edu/virtualjournal.cfm.

A monthly online journal that contains citations and links to articles
on the environment and health impacts of nanotechnology, VJ-Nano EHS
is a product of The International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON) and
Rice University’s Center for Biological and Environmental
Nanotechnology (CBEN), which launched the first EHS database in August
2005.

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