Public Release:  New UK study of nanotechnology - the small-scale science

Department of Trade & Industry

British Information Services

The UK Government has today launched a new independent study to examine in detail the benefits and risks of nanotechnology. The technology involves working with materials on the nanoscale - 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Nanotechnology has the potential to improve our health and wealth but it is important that any necessary regulatory framework is in place early on.

Science Minister Lord Sainsbury has commissioned the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to conduct the independent study to:

  • summarize the current scientific knowledge on nanotechnology;
  • identify applications of nanotechnology, both currently and potentially, with indications of when they might be developed;
  • consider environmental, health and safety, ethical and social implications of the technology, both now and in the future; and
  • suggest areas where additional regulation should be considered.

Lord Sainsbury said:

"Nanotechnology has the potential to create huge benefits in many areas, but we need to understand whether it raises new ethical, health and safety, or social issues which are not covered by current regulations.

"I have, therefore, commissioned the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to look at current and future developments in nanotechnology and report on whether we need to introduce new regulations. This report could then be the basis for a wider public debate. I would also like to thank Ann Dowling for agreeing to take this work forward."

The study will be chaired by Ann Dowling, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Cambridge University. A working group will be appointed shortly to reflect the wide range of disciplines required to consider the questions which have been posed, including ethical, social and regulatory considerations as well as science and engineering. The group will also approach wider stakeholder groups for input including academia, industry, interest groups and the public.

Public engagement will be included in the study in the form of focus groups, a questionnaire survey and an online discussion forum to ensure that public concerns are addressed. The final report of the study will be put into the public domain and be freely available on the Royal Society website.

Nanotechnology is about making things smaller, faster, stronger, more energy efficient or with new and useful properties. Examples of potential uses include:

  • improved treatment of disease through 'targeted drug delivery' - precision delivery of medicine to affected cells;
  • faster computers with greater data storage - computers that can hold and access quickly vast amounts of data, far greater than is currently possible;
  • new materials that are lighter, stronger, more energy efficient and/or cheaper to produce; and
  • nano-glass that cleans itself with the aid of water and sunlight.

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Notes to Editors

1) The study is commissioned and paid for by the UK Government Office of Science and Technology but will be conducted independently by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. The working group is expected to report to Government in late Spring 2004.
2) Professor Ann Dowling CBE FRS FREng is Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Cambridge, Director of the University Gas Turbine Partnership and Head of the Division in which research in aeronautics and energy is carried out at the University of Cambridge.
3) All parties with an interest in nanotechnology - not just scientists, but environmental and consumer groups too should get in touch with the study by clicking on http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/nanotechnology

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