Thursday, May 21, 2009

Nanotechnology regulation and policy worldwide. Book review

Nanotechnology regulation and policy worldwide. Book reviewNanotechnology regulation and policy worldwide by J.H. Matsuura is a book based around an interesting idea: to provide an overview of the framework in which nanotechnology is destined to evolve. This includes intellectual property rights (IPRs), safety regulations and policies (existing or planned) which impact upon businesses active in this novel scientific and technological arena.

The first chapter containing an introduction to the field of nanotechnology is probably one of the least satisfactory to read in the book, as it lacks precision and contains some factual errors. For example the statement that ‘‘different classes of [carbon] nanotubes have different useful properties. Some (. . .) are exceptionally strong while others are exceptional conductors of electricity.’’ (p. 16) is a bit dubious as all carbon nanotubes have excellent mechanical properties. On the same page the description of the synthesis of nanotubes is as approximative mixing the various methods into one. It would probably have been wise to collaborate with a scientist to ensure accuracy in this domain. J.H. Matsuura nonetheless manages to convey the breadth of potential applications that nanotechnology promises. In the second chapter focusing on IPRs, the author presents a clear picture of the origins and drawbacks of the various protection regimes that can be applied to technological processes and products. Even the examples he gives to illustrate his point frustratingly do not add much to the argument. Especially relevant is the discussion around the issue of patents and patents enforcement which budding entrepreneurs should clearly consider before rushing in the ‘‘patent tsunami’’ of these past few years. Matsuura also recommends thinking carefully whether to patent or keep secret a step in the production process. Although keeping trade secrets seems to be a good idea for Coca Cola, in very active research fields such as nanotechnology there is a real risk that somebody else discovers what you are trying to hide.

Despite this, the author clearly presents the advantages and drawbacks of the various protection methods. The next chapter deals with regulation and presents a clear picture of the various levels of legislation which impact on nano-related products. In my view, the author is a bit quick in dismissing the need for new regulation concerning nanotechnology especially when he writes: ‘‘strong arguments can be made that manipulation of known chemicals on the nanoscale does not create new chemical substances’’(p. 78). This statement seems to go against what the supposed nano revolution is about, namely that by controlling size and shape of objects novel properties emerge. This ‘business as usual’ stance will be discussed later in this review. He however rightly points out that it is important to have a relatively stable regulatory framework to provide a good business environment. Chapter four is a list of governmental initiatives on nano. Although of limited interest, it is probably useful in that the reader does not need to compile their own list. The last two chapters aim at discussing more subtle points of regulation’s impact and propose a ‘‘roadmap’’ to regulate this field.

The book is accessible to a fair range of potential readers (scientists, venture capitalists, etc.) and is clearly written. The author is more at ease with the legal aspects than with the scientific or policy parts of the book, as could be expected from his professional background as counsel in a law firm. The book contains several interesting ideas but in some instances can be seen as pro-business. An interesting proposal that the author makes is that governments around the world should promote an open source approach to nanotechnology and other emerging technologies. This would result in a faster circulation of information and a faster rate of innovation. He also calls for an integration of nanotechnology regulation into existing frameworks, rather than the creation of ad hoc institutions, which seems like a sensible option. I tend to disagree with the author on several points: he seems to be seeing people debating the desirability of putting nano-products on the market in a ‘‘deficit model’’ approach (explain better and they will see the light); he is very critical of the precautionary principle applied in the European Union describing it as ‘‘permitting the potential for great harm to eliminate the need for an accurate assessment of likelihood of harm’’ (p. 93). All these arguments, combined with others throughout the book, make clear that J.H. Matsuura is much more concerned by not slowing down business and innovation than making sure we know what we are doing when attempting to regulate this new field, even though ideally we should be able to do both.

Overall this book is a decent attempt at dealing with a very complex issue. It provides quite a bit of information on IPRs and the regulatory framework and attempts to address several of the big challenges we are facing to maximise the benefits from this new field while trying to minimise the negative externalities. Finally, I would have liked to see a more forceful call for governments around the world to be much more pro-active in building the research capacity in the field of nano-toxicity (both to humans and the environment), which is, in my view, the best way to ensure that we make the most of nanotechnology in the coming decades.

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