Responsible nanosciences research: New Code of Conduct

On the 30th of April 2008, the European Commission published the outline of a new Code of Conduct for responsible nanosciences and nanotechnologies research. This set of regulations provides Member States, employers, research funders, researchers and more generally all individuals and civil society organisations involved or interested in nanosciences and nanotechnologies (N&N) research (all stakeholders) with guidelines favouring a responsible and open approach to N&N research in the Community.

The potential economic impacts of nanosciences and nanotechnologies research have been highlighted by many analysts, with forecasts varying between US$150 billion by 2010 (approximately €110 billion) according to a 2002 study by the Mitsubishi Institute, and US$2.6 trillion (approximately €1.9 trillion) by 2014 according to a 2004 Lux Research Study. The latter scenario would imply that the 2 market for nanotechnology-based products would be larger than the information and communication technology market and would exceed biotechnology by ten times.

The aim is for entities to cooperate with each other to ensure that N&N research is undertaken in the Community in a safe, ethical and effective framework, supporting sustainable economic, social and environmental development. However, the code is voluntary thus will require the commitment of those entities carrying out research into nano sciences.

European Commission started a consultation on the Code of Conduct in July 2007. On the basis of the replies received the published text was drawn up. It is very much in line with the objective of promoting integrated safe and responsible nanosciences and nanotechnologies that lies at the heart of the 2005 Nanotechnologies Action Plan. The starting point of the principles to be set  out in the Code of Conduct were the legal guarantees set out in the Charter on Fundamental Rights, as well as the general  principles resulting from relevant international treaties such as the Convention on Human Rights (1950), the Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine (1997), and the Aarhus Convention for Environment (1998).

General principles

The seven general principles for this code of conduct are as follows:

  • Meaning: N&N research activities should be comprehensible to the public. They should respect fundamental rights and be conducted in the interest of the well-being of individuals and society in their design, implementation, dissemination and use.
  • Sustainability: N&N research activities should be safe, ethical and contribute to sustainable development. They should not harm or threaten people, animals, plants or the environment, at present or in the future.
  • Precaution: N&N research activities should be conducted in accordance with the precautionary principle, anticipating potential environmental, health and safety impacts of N&N outcomes and taking due precautions, proportional to the level of protection, while encouraging progress for the benefit of society and the environment.
  • Inclusiveness: Governance of N&N research activities should be guided by the principles of openness to all stakeholders, transparency and respect for the legitimate right of access to information. It should allow the participation in decision-making processes of all stakeholders involved in or concerned by N&N research activities.
  • Excellence: N&N research activities should meet the best scientific standards, including integrity of research and good laboratory practices.
  • Innovation: Governance of N&N research activities should encourage maximum creativity, flexibility and planning ability for innovation and growth.
  • Accountability: Researchers and research organisations should remain accountable for the social, environmental and human health impacts of their work.

It is important to note that these principles are meant to give guidance on how to achieve good governance, due respect for precaution, as well as wide dissemination and good monitoring of the Code of Conduct.

The notification highlighted as key, the need to adopt N&N standard terminology to facilitate the communication of scientific evidence. It also emphasised that N&N research funding bodies should not fund research in areas which could involve the violation of fundamental rights or fundamental ethical principles.