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Rubrik: Science Life

Tagesanzeiger’s podium discussion at ETH Zurich on nanotechnology
Curiosity mixed with uncertainty

Published: 29.03.2007 06:00
Modified: 28.03.2007 22:55
The public is very interested in nanotechnology but uncertain as to the knowledge gaps in this area, as is shown by the Tagesanzeiger newspaper’s podium discussion at Science City on the Hönggerberg campus on Tuesday evening, 20.03.2007.

Peter Rüegg

Unanimity prevailed in the podium discussion “It’s all nano, isn’t it? Opportunities and risks of nanotechnology” organised by the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper at Science City on Tuesday, 20.03.2007. This despite the expectation that the discussion was more likely to lead to polarisation: on the one hand research and industry represented by Viola Vogel, ETH Zurich Professor for Biologically-oriented Materials Science, and Hans Näf, working on nanoparticle processing; on the other Ruth Genner, National Council member for the Green Party, and the ethicist Andreas Bachmann. In fact the nanotechnology discussion caused less of a stir than genetic engineering.

Public opinion is positive

According to a study by the Centre for Technology Assessment, TA-Swiss(1) , the public is quite receptive to nanotechnology. In particular the 2003 study of nanotechnology in medicine showed that lay people assess the opportunities more highly than the possible health risks. However, they suspect danger to the environment and health, and demand clear rules and declarations, especially for foods. Moreover, according to Sergio Belluci, Executive Director of TA-Swiss, who introduced the topic to the panel members and the public, the population is still insufficiently informed. For instance “There is still curiosity associated with nano,” is how Ruth Genner summarised the Swiss people’s positive attitude to these new technologies. Undeniably there are opportunities and risks, although the Green Party politician and ETH Zurich food technologist also acknowledged that the nanotechnologies have great potential.

Immense market potential

The industrialist Hans Näf even talked of a market potential for nanotechnologies amounting to about 800 billion Swiss francs worldwide. He said the nano industry would create up to 15,000 new jobs in Germany. ETH Zurich Professor Viola Vogel appeared convinced that nanotechnologies help to solve some of humanity’s challenges. She said there was great pressure to innovate in drinking water purification, food production or medicine to supply the world’s growing population.

It could also benefit the environment and energy supply. She said the automobile catalyst – a “nano application” – had greatly improved air quality. Thanks to nanotechnology, electronic components are becoming ever smaller and need less energy. According to Vogel: “There are many areas where the nanotechnologies can intervene beneficially in our lives.” She says nanoparticles offer alternatives to antibiotics, which are becoming increasingly ineffective in the fight against bacteria. Nanoparticles could one day carry the active ingredients of medicines to the cell level or play an important part in imaging processes. Nanosensors could detect diseases early at the cellular stage, before the patient begins to suffer. However, the scientist said that was all still many years away.

Smoking produces the most nanoparticles

There was little dispute among the panel members that there are hidden risks in the nanotechnologies. Bachmann said that unrestrained free nanoparticles in particular had to be taken seriously.

Agreed on many points in the podium discussion: Hans Näf, Ruth Genner, Viola Vogel and Andreas Bachmann (t.l. to b.r.)

The tiny particles penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the blood or even pass through the otherwise impermeable blood-brain barrier. There is no detailed research on how much harm that can cause. The ethicist said that the legislator must apply the precautionary principle until the situation was clearer.

Viola Vogel thought the discussion of risk should initially be limited to free nanoparticles. She said the largest amount of nanoparticles to which people are exposed in daily life up to now comes from smoking, and stressed that “We must, in general, demand an absolute smoking ban.” Tyre wear in road traffic and other combustion processes, for example domestic open fires, are additional sources of nanoparticles to which human beings are exposed in their daily lives.

Legislators too slow for industry

For the industrialist Näf the precautionary principle is not in dispute. It’s just that technology is advancing rapidly. In his opinion “The legislator is always too slow for the industry. If we wait for a law, it’s too late for the entire branch of industry.” Näf expressed his requests to the legislators like this: factual information to be given about nanotechnology, a Swiss federal information desk for the nanoparticle-processing industries, and no solo effort by Switzerland. Vogel in turn called for a priority list for research so scientists could know which substances needed to be studied first. According to the materials researcher: “That’s the only way research can give early answers to the important questions.”

Indeed, the ETH Zurich professor said that nowadays it was possible to address questions that were not asked 20 years ago. She said new methods would allow the trail of nanoparticles to be traced to see where they were deposited. However, research would need to clarify what happened in the cell. “This means not just finding out whether a substance is toxic, but also which threshold values it needs.” She said that without scientific data there could be no law and no threshold values, which are needed very quickly in most cases.

The public is mainly curious

The panel established that there is still an information gap regarding nanotechnology which the media should fill. Genner said “The media play an important role in informing the public.” In addition to research into the benefits of nanoparticles, there should also be progress in risk research to create a basis for legislation. The public, who filled lecture hall G7 in the HCI to the last seat, was so eager to ask numerous burning questions that the panel and presenter Barbara Reye had to accept questions from the public even before the official round of questions. It indicated one thing above all else: there is great uncertainty – but also great curiosity.

(1 TA-Swiss publications list: (

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