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Scientists support Prince on nanotech

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor

25 July 2004

Tough new rules must be brought in to guard against dangers to health and the environment from nanotechnology, Britain's top scientific and engineering bodies will conclude this week.

A weighty new joint report by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering will also urge ministers and scientists to adopt a much more open approach to the public over the technology than it has over GM.

The report, to be published on Thursday, marks an abrupt change of attitude by the Royal Society, which has been one of the principal cheerleaders for genetically modified crops and foods, and demonstrates how severely the scientific establishment has been shaken by successful public resistance to them.

It also largely vindicates Prince Charles who, in an exclusive article for The Independent on Sunday two weeks ago, warned of the risks of the technology - which manipulates microscopic materials 80,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair - and called for "significantly greater social awareness, humility and openness" from its supporters than they had displayed over GM.

And it wrong-foots leading scientists such as the fertility expert Lord Winston and Professor Steve Jones of University College London, who accused the prince of raising "science scares" and of being "a classic woolly thinker".

Nanotechnology operates with particles so small that they behave in unpredictable ways and roam freely through the body. The report points out that they offer huge benefits - new medical treatments, ways of cleaning up the environment, clean energy and industrial products. But, as it also shows, they can also pose immense risks.

At that tiny size, even safe materials such as latex become toxic, and there are fears that they could overwhelm the immune system and penetrate the protective blood/brain barrier to disrupt the body's most crucial organ. The report lists recommendations to the Government and other bodies for regulations to govern the new technology. It insists that there is no exact parallel between nanotechnology and GM, but devotes much space to learning the lessons from the failure of scientists to win public trust during the debate over modified crops and foods.

Research for the report shows that only 29 per cent of Britons have heard of nanotechnology, and that only 19 per cent could give even an inaccurate definition of it.