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Nanotechnology for Policymakers Print
Nanotechnology for Policymakers: An Introduction from the Physical Science Perspective, NCCR Trade Regulation Working Paper 2009/21

Nanomaterials – the products of nanotechnology – have all the potential to affect not only the health of the workforce, the consumer or citizen at large, but also the environment. The nature of the impact of nanomaterials is yet to be determined, while great hopes entice our imagination to explore their applications, concerns of unassessed risks open the social and regulatory discourse to both speculation and the need for more research. The basic capacity for understanding the language of state-of-the-art science and technology is necessary in order to assess binding international treaties, agreements and national legislation in terms of their mutual compatibility, and their function of upholding society’s declared values and rights. The result of such an assessment may be the necessity to draft policy and legislation adapted to the newly created technological environment.

This paper was written to introduce trade lawyers and policy makers to the science and technology context in which nanotechnology has arisen. It aims at providing a general appreciation of the topic without getting lost in the myriad fascinating and esoteric details which fill vast scientific, technical, popular and academic libraries. This paper aims at cultivating a basic appreciation of science and technology and how it relates to the ongoing nanotechnology discourse. In particular it aims at making the limits of science of technology perceptible. In addition, the use of graphics and images is purposefully omitted to keep in tune with the legal and juristic narrative style.

In summary, what makes nanoparticles novel is not just their size, but that they exhibit physicochemical properties that differ from those of bulk or other morphological modifications of matter. However nanotechnology is not limited to nanoparticles in three dimensions, it also includes two-dimensional nanostructured surfaces, and monodimensional wires. The surprise of their physicochemical properties finds its origins in the very nature of what are called quantum phenomena which are only observable to a very minute degree in more common morphological modifications of matter referred to as bulk materials or conventional chemicals. In themselves, nanomaterials are not new, what is new is the technological ability to study them in detail, engineer new materials and mimic naturally occurring ones, and finally to fabricate large quantities of these. It is the extensive nature of the exposure to these materials across all sectors of life that raises broad social and regulatory concerns in view of the fact that the available policies, regulations, laws, standards and methodologies do not take into account the minutiae and subtle properties of these materials, chemicals and composites based on nanotechnology. In particular, risk assessment methodologies and standards are only at the beginning of their development.

In other words, what we call nanotechnology is, today, nothing more and nothing less than the state of the art of science and technology, and it represents the frontier of our ever-expanding knowledge of the nature of our physical universe at a time of disciplinary convergence and accelerated technological transfer that impacts on daily life, trade, economics and governance with novel challenges.

Key Words (nanotechnology, technology, physical science, introduction, policy, basic science)

SNF - Swiss National Science Foundation The National Centres of Competence in Research are a research instrument of the Swiss National Science Foundation