Science & Technology

First it challenged the vaunted benefits of genetically modified food.  Now it’s focusing on the next questionable application of science to the food chain: nanotechnology.  The North America-based ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) came to prominence in the late 1990s when it decried agribusiness giant Monsanto’s marketing of the “Terminator” gene that promised to prevent farmers from saving seeds for subsequent harvests.  The campaign against “Terminator” technology was successful.  In 1999, Monsanto announced that it would not commercialize the technology.

ETC’s latest campaign targets a much smaller development with a much larger potential impact.  Nanotechnology is the manipulation of extremely small bits of matter – at the atomic level rather than the gene level. In the farm sector, nanotechnology means atomically altered seeds, micro-emulsion pesticides, “smart dust” sensors in the fields that monitor growing conditions, and nano-foods for livestock.  Further down the food chain, expect to see nano-food additives in processed goods such as nano-ceuticals that provide bursts of tiny minerals, nano-polymers as preservatives, and nano-particles of clay that form transparent plastic packaging.  Biotechnology firms anticipate that the nanotech food market will be more than $20 billion in 2010.

Yet no one yet knows how all these nano-particles will interact with human or animal biology or what their effect will be on the environment.  One 2004 study showed that large-mouth bass suffered brain damage when exposed to the carbon nano-particles known as buckyballs.  Another indication of the potential harmful effects of nanotechnology is the U.S. Defense Department’s interest in researching the use of microcapsules for delivering chemical agents.  In the worst-case scenario – the Green Goo problem – autonomous nano-particles will reproduce themselves at an uncontrollable rate until they have filled the universe.

The ETC group monitors developments in science and technology to determine whether they are in the best interest of the public rather than merely the narrow interest of an economic or political elite. Its major concern is not so much whether any given technology is good or bad, but who holds the reins of control.  Agricultural research was once done largely in public settings – in government facilities or at public land-grant universities.  Today, most agricultural research takes place in corporate laboratories or in university programs sponsored by private companies.  The same can be said for other scientific research.  The military-industrial complex extends to campuses around the country where defense contractors support science departments and disproportionately influence computer and artificial intelligence (AI) research.  Corporations sponsored the human genome project.  The major energy corporations now have their hands in the research on alternative energy and non-fossil fuel transportation.

The issue of control is not, of course, the only concern of those who adopt a critical stance toward science and technology. Scholars and activists drawn to the philosophy of science explore how knowledge is created socially, how scientific concepts are culturally bound, how issues of race and class and gender have shaped what are so frequently presented as neutral “facts.”  Many such critical scientists despair that an older humanist tradition of science, in which technology was integrated into a larger vision of the individual’s relationship and responsibility to society, has been eclipsed by a more mechanistic approach that privileges measurable, quantifiable data.

These are not mere academic questions.  The notion that biology largely determines social behavior – sociobiology – remains controversial not only as a scientific theory but as a larger ideological framework that shapes public policy.  And specific debates – over the teaching of evolution, the research into stem cells, or the measurement of intelligence – take place in homes and the halls of Congress, not just laboratories.

Who should be in control of science and technology, and for whom should scientists be working? Should those who have a stake in the results of scientific research have a say in how it proceeds – even though it is often unclear who benefits from the research?  How can the public weigh in on questions that are extraordinarily technical?  How can difficult questions such as the safety of new technologies be assessed?  And what about the inevitable trade-offs, such as between economic advancement and environmental despoliation?  Should developing countries have restricted access to technology such as ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons simply because their industrialization came along a few decades too late?  Should there be any restrictions on science, whether in terms of military applications (bombs), ethical concerns (clones), or freedom of speech (Internet)?

On a trip to Provisions, you can read Brian Alexander’s Rapture about the “true believers” of biotechnology, leaf through India’s premier magazine of science and technology Down to Earth, tour the ETC Group’s website to read their report on nanotechnology Down on the Farm, listen to Michio Kaku’s provocative radio program in streaming audio, flip through Tools as Art, and watch Paul Newman play a general in the film about the making of the atomic bomb, Fat Man and Little Boy.

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