Nanotechnology is considered to be the key technology of the 21st century, and markets are expected to grow significantly in forthcoming years. As an emerging research and development (R&D) field, nanotechnology has the potential to control the structure and behaviour of matter. Applications can translate into new materials properties that can offer solutions to many current problems through the development of smaller, lighter, faster and better performing materials, components and systems. The Science in Society (SIS) Programme has a role to play in ensuring that progress in the field occurs in a safe, ethical and efficient way.
Developments in nanotechnology can benefit citizens and generate growth, industrial competitiveness and sustainable development. Products based on nanotechnology are already in use in various fields including food, health, energy, transport, space, and information technology (IT).
The emergence and innovative character of nanotechnology is such that concerns have been raised on the lack of scientific knowledge and the absence of evidence regarding the potential hazards of nanoparticles on public health, safety, and environmental and consumer protection.
Everybody agrees that risk assessment must be integrated as early as possible in the R&D process, and that such assessments should be carried out at EU level. The consequences of human and environmental exposure to these potential hazards are deemed very important issues. Likewise, the potential consequences in terms of ethics and individual freedom are of equal concern.
Given the growing demand and expectation from civil society, researchers and industry to guarantee the safe, ethical and efficient development of nanotechnologies, the European Commission recommended that EU Member States adopt a code of conduct to govern research in this field.
In preparation for this code, the European Commission launched a public consultation on 19 July 2007 to collect a broad sample of feedback from individuals and groups from research, industry, civil society, policy and the media.
The European Commission's subsequent 'Recommendation on a Code of Conduct (CoC) for Responsible Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies (N&N) Research' aims to frame future research development within a set of seven general principles on which EU Member States are invited to take concrete action to ensure that nanotechnologies are developed in a safe manner.
On 7 and 8 May 2008, the European Commission hosted a conference where the code was discussed by representatives from academia, industry and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
'Nanotechnologies and nanosciences could very well be the next revolution in enabling technologies, and Europe has a good track record in their development,' said the then EU Commissioner for Science and Research, Janez Potočnik. 'Part of our strength is in the attention we are giving to their responsible development and use. The Code of Conduct is a tool developed by the Commission, after consulting with the public, that will make it very simple to address the legitimate concerns that can arise regarding nanotechnologies.'