11.05.2009 - UNESCO Social and Human Sciences

Development of Nanotechnologies: a Key Debate in the Arab States

An important meeting on nanotechnologies and development in the Arab States, which was held from 18 to 19 May 2009, in Doha (Qatar), has provided an opportunity for participants to consider the modalities of implementation of the ethical guidelines and policies which COMEST addressed to UNESCO Member States in 2007.

During the meeting in Doha, UNESCO continued its reflection that it began on nanotechnologies in an effort to study and formulate ethical principles and guide their development.

The phenomenal advancements in nanotechnologies raise key questions for the scientific community and public opinion: What are the issues at stake related to health and the environment? What are the risks of military and biomedical applications? How can universal access to new discoveries and state-of-the-art technologies be ensured?

The forty participants, from different regions of the world, were invited to provide answers and to exchange views on the conditions of implementation of the recommendations and strategies on ethics in the Arab region. These were developed and addressed to UNESCO Member States in 2007, by the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST).

At the crossroads of several scientific disciplines – such as electronics, mechanics, chemistry, optics, and biology – which manipulate objects the size of a nanometer (one billionth of a meter), there is potential for nanotechnologies to affect all facets of human activity: information and communications technologies, materials, energy, water, space, medicine etc.

Furthermore, nanotechnologies are a major challenge to scientific policy. Nanotechnologies have essentially evolved in a field where the traditional distinction between science and technology is difficult to maintain, due to scientists and engineers having to work together, breaking down the boundaries between disciplines and allowing approaches and technologies to converge. The study of nanotechnologies therefore requires a holistic approach based on a true interdisciplinary dialogue.

Aware of all these issues, UNESCO has taken various initiatives to develop a global overview of the ethical dimensions of nanotechnologies and to examine the implications of these initiatives on its Member States, as well as the measures that can be taken.

One expected outcome at the close of the Doha meeting is that the Arab region, which has experienced first-hand the rapid development of this new technology, will take heed of all these issues – in particular, the ethical dimension – and will therefore be capable of implementing the recommendations formulated by COMEST, which essentially consist of three maxims: establishment of an ethical framework, raising public awareness and promoting debate on nanotechnology, and the need for ethics education.

Download the recommendations of COMEST relating to nanotechnologies [PDF, 333 KB]

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