BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Union is planning to introduce a code of conduct for research into nanosciences and nanotechnologies before the end of this year, and has given the scientific community and industry until Sept. 21 to comment on its initial thinking on governance mechanisms.

A just-published consultation paper warns that "the development and use of nanotechnologies should not be unbalanced or left to chance."

The draft EU code blends optimism with caution. It recognizes that nanosciences and nanotechnologies are expected to bring substantial benefits across health and other sectors, and could generate a market worth 10 times the current world biotechnology market. But it underlines that "knowledge gaps remain concerning the exposure risk."

The code is intended "to promote safe and responsible nanotechnology research and pave the way to its safe and responsible application and use." Part of the planned mechanism would make researchers' actions more visible at a European level. In its consultation, the EU is highlighting the ability of nanosubstances to cross natural bioboundaries, and their potential to connect living creatures and man-made materials and systems.

The draft focuses on protection of fundamental rights and human dignity, and is heavily based on existing international agreements such as the 1997 European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, and the EU's own precautionary principle approach.

"In the face of scientific uncertainty," it urged "all necessary steps to maintain a high level of protection of individuals, defining proper safety requirements, developing and validating further testing methods."

It also stressed "the importance of impartial scientific advice for the development of sound policies," and "explicit consideration of the limits of knowledge and control over the development of the technology." And it suggested that researchers should be invited to report voluntarily when they are confronted with "unsafe or unethical situations."

The code will be discussed at an EU conference in Lisbon Sept. 16-19. Once its content is agreed upon, member states, industry, universities, funding organizations and researchers will be invited to follow the code's principles.

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