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Nanotechnology Risk Assessment FAIL
Mike Treder   Dec 12, 2008   Responsible Nanotechnology  

In 2001, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was established by Congress to: (1) Advance a world-class nanotechnology research and development program. (2) Foster the transfer of new technologies into products for commercial and public benefit. (3) Develop and sustain educational resources, a skilled workforce, and the supporting infrastructure and tools to advance nanotechnology. (4) Support responsible development of nanotechnology.

While these are all long-term goals, and although nanotech research and development is still in its infancy, it is reasonable at this point to assess how well the NNI is progressing toward these four goals.

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  1. On the first one, pretty well, I'd say. Many other countries are investing heavily in nanotechnology, but the US is generally regarded as the world leader in accomplishment.
  2. On the second goal, it is still very early, but a few products are incorporating early generation nanotech and are beginning to find profits.
  3. As for the third goal, that's a heavy load, and it doesn't appear yet as though a great deal of progress has been made. Educational resources are meager, and as for the rest, it likely will require a much larger budget than the $1 billion or so the NNI has had in recent years. Perhaps the incoming administration will set higher priorities in this area.
  4. But it's the fourth goal—responsible development of nanotechnology—where the NNI is really failing. And we're not the only ones to say so. 

This week, a study committee from the US National Research Council (NRC)  issued a highly critical report describing serious shortfalls in the Bush administration's strategy to better understand the environment, health and safety (EHS) risks of nanotechnology and to effectively manage those potential risks.

A new report from the National Research Council finds serious weaknesses in the government's plan for research on the potential health and environmental risks posed by nanomaterials, which are increasingly being used in consumer goods and industry. An effective national plan for identifying and managing potential risks is essential to the successful development and public acceptance of nanotechnology-enabled products, emphasized the committee that wrote the report.

"The current plan catalogs nano-risk research across several federal agencies, but it does not present an overarching research strategy needed to gain public acceptance and realize the promise of nanotechnology," said committee chair David Eaton, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, School of Public Health, and associate vice provost for research at the University of Washington, Seattle.

The research plan, developed by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, does not provide a clear picture of the current understanding of these risks or where it should be in 10 years, says the new report. Nor does the NNI plan include research goals to help ensure that nanotechnologies are developed and used as safely as possible. And though the research needs listed in the plan are valuable, they are incomplete, in some cases missing elements crucial for progress in understanding nanomaterials' health and safety impacts. A new national strategic plan is needed that goes beyond federal research to incorporate research from academia, industry, consumer and environmental groups, and other stakeholders, the committee concluded.

At least one concerned observer in Washington was quick to point the finger of blame:

Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) Director David Rejeski maintains the "lessons learned" in the NRC report offer a silver lining that will help guide the administration of President-elect Barack Obama.

"It is disappointing that the Bush administration did not listen to PEN experts - and repeated calls from nanotech industry and congressional leaders from both parties - for an improved and revamped risk research plan for nanotechnology. The administration's delay has hurt investor and consumer confidence. It has gambled with public health and safety. It has jeopardized the $14 billion investment governments and private industry have made in this technology and its great promise for significant advancements in health care, energy and manufacturing. But I am encouraged that the NRC assessment will provide a roadmap for the next administration to make up for this lost time. It's time to get the job done and to get it done right," says Rejeski.

The risk research plan developed under the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has been widely criticized by consumer groups, chemical industry representatives and congressional lawmakers from both major parties as lacking a clear vision and the resources necessary to improve understanding of the potential risks posed by nanomaterials.

While we recognize that the success of any government agency can be helped or hindered by a particular administration, we're not so sure it's that simple. The NNI itself has not played a strong leadership role in defining, assessing, and planning to mitigate potential dangers from nanotechnology. They have been far more active in promoting potential benefits, and have even at times downplayed risks.

What CRN would like to see now is a restatement of goals at the NNI, which should include explicit description of both near-term and longer-term threats the technology may bring. The NNI should acknowledge that molecular manufacturing, as CRN defines it, is now fully established in theory, is being pursued in laboratory research around the world, and must be accounted for in studies of both benefits and risks.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.



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