Prince warns against new 'thalidomide' disaster

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The Independent Online

The Prince of Wales warns today that thalidomide-style disasters could result from a startling new technology about to revolutionise industrial and everyday life.

The Prince of Wales warns today that thalidomide-style disasters could result from a startling new technology about to revolutionise industrial and everyday life.

Writing exclusively in today's Independent on Sunday, the Prince sounds the alarm on the little-known science of nanotechnology, which manipulates materials one-millionth the size of a pinhead. Already a $10bn (£5.4bn) business, it is expected to provoke the next big scientific controversy after genetic modification.

In the Prince's first public intervention on the subject, he calls on those promoting the technology to show "significantly greater social awareness, humility and openness" than they did over GM.

Officials say he plans a new campaign, like his successful one against GM crops and foods. This is likely to bring him again into conflict with Tony Blair and senior members of the Government already smarting after their GM defeat. The Prime Minister believesthat Britain must develop the technology as rapidly as possible.

His Science minister, Lord Sainsbury, has warned the Prince against getting involved. But the Prince has been studying the subject and preparing his ground for more than a year.

The Royal Society last night welcomed the Prince's "thoughtful contribution".

Nanotechnology - whose use is expected to grow a hundredfold over the next decade - involves working with substances on the unimaginably small scale of nanometres, or billionths of a metre.

Prince Charles calls the technology "a triumph of human ingenuity" but adds: "Discovering the secrets of the Universe is one thing: ensuring that those secrets are used wisely and appropriately is quite another."

The public will accept it only "if a precautionary approach is seen to be applied". He urges "regulatory processes" to be "encouraged to develop at the same rate as the technology" and for risk assessment to "keep pace with commercial development".

But he adds: "If you look at the EU's research programme for nanotechnology, only an estimated 5 per cent of total funding is being spent on examining the environmental, social and ethical dimensions of these technologies. That certainly doesn't inspire confidence."

He approvingly quotes Professor John Carroll of Cambridge University as appealing for concerns about the technology not to be dismissed as "Luddite" (as Mr Blair did over criticism of GM), and warning that it could cause "similar upsets" to thalidomide "unless appropriate care and humility is observed". The Prince comments: "Those are my sentiments too."

He sets out to correct persistent media reports that he is concerned about one of the more improbable scares, that tiny self-replicating robots could turn the whole planet to "grey goo". He writes: "For the record, I have never used that expression. Such beliefs should be left where they belong, in the realms of science fiction."

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