Case Study 5: Nanotechnologies
About the case
As an emerging technology and an important group within the so-called advanced materials, nanotechnologies are characterized by manifold areas of application and high uncertainty.
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There is uncertainty about nanotechnologies and advanced materials, which makes the definition of risks difficult. Why? While risks allow knowledge on possible outcomes and an expression of probabilities, uncertainty does not allow the assignment of probabilities to outcomes.
Brief summary of the case study
The European Commission pointed out that nanotechnologies and nanosciences will offer promising solutions for a wide variety of technical problems in a socially acceptable and environmental-friendly way. Therefore, the nanotechnology research programmes have been associated by safety and sustainability research from the very beginning. National nanotechnology research strategies and action plans followed this policy very soon.
Moreover, it has been emphasised that a transparent public communication and a serious inclusion strategy has to be applied to inform the interested public and all concerned parties about the benefits but also about possible disadvantages of these new materials and products. Additional to the nanotechnology research programmes most of the member states opened calls for safety issues mainly focusing on worker safety, consumer protection and toxicology.
The European Commission and the European Parliament debated and published detailed nanospecific regulation on topics of high concern like cosmetics, novel food and food contact materials at an early stage. Finally, these activities were carried out by establishing national and international networks to include all relevant knowledge.
This tight interaction between organising and evaluating the available knowledge on nanotechnologies and their effects on different systems, translating and disseminating these results on possible benefits and adverse effects to all interested parties and setting up specific communication and working processes such as nanotechnology commission in Austria are an illustrative example how the precautionary principle and its following concepts like responsible research and innovation can be successfully applied.