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President and Executive Director
The conversation on nanotechnology EHS concerns is maturing, and in a much better way than many feared. This points the way to an outstanding opportunity to collaboratively advance science, human health and the economy.
December 7th, 2007
From Presumptive Moratoria to Predictive Models
McCormick Place Convention Center, Chicago, Illinois. October 6, 2004.
After a long day of torture-by-powerpoint, geeky reception noshers in the pitch-stage and expo floor area at NanoCommerce 2004 turn heads toward the noisy entrance of a colorful body-painted group in various stages of dishabille (worth looking up) who have come to warn of the dangers and depredations of nanotechnology. Topless Humans Organized for Natural Genetics (T.H.O.N.G.) dance, chant and toss the cheering crowd (this was undoubtedly the only presentation anyone recalls from the event - I think I spoke on a panel, but just can't remember) copious quantities of the kind of postcard normally sold only in San Francisco or Hawaii (yes, of course, it's free on the web). Whether or not they were really drama students from Northwestern, it seems unlikely - between the confusion of nanotech with genetic engineering and the middle-aged male crowd's palpable disappointment that they didn't perform longer - that their original communication objective was met.
T.H.O.N.G. appeared again in May 2005 on the streets of Chicago to protest Eddie Bauer's use of human beings as "guinea pigs for new, untested, and unstable new technologies" (sic) as evidenced by its reselling of nanocoating-enabled stain resistant garments. Less demonstrative types have called for moratoria on some or all nanotechnology research and/or unprecedented regulation and public restriction of nanotechnology per some version of the idealistic "precautionary principle". All of this caused many people I know in the well-meaning geek set to worry that an irrational and emotional mass rejection of all things nano would be ignited, leaving facts and more reasoned approaches to eat its dust.
I think it's becoming clearer that is not happening. As is not untypical of conversations about new technologies, the hype in both directions is subsiding, soundbite journalists are seeking their own next new thing, the valid issues (which do exist, though they are undramatic) are being described with greater accuracy, and responses to the widespread (by virtually all interested parties) call for greater investment in "nano EHS" are reflecting both careful thinking and compelling research opportunities.
A great example is the NanoHealth Enterprise, led by NIH's National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences. The description at http://www.niehs.gov//research/supported/programs/nanohealth/index.cfm nicely articulates the green nano approach ONAMI believes in so strongly. The "nut" we are all after is known by some as "predictive models" for the interaction of engineered nanomaterials (ENM) with biological systems. This is in many respects no less complex or daunting than a complete mechanistic understanding of the entire set of both therapeutic and unwanted side effects of a major class (or several major classes) of pharmaceutical compounds, and it will not be achieved without a high degree of partnership among academia, government and industry - including a very disciplined and organized approach to experimental data encoding and mining.
The payoff of this achievement will be huge, and not just in a defensive or precautionary sense. "Device models" and "design rules" are the lifeblood of the semiconductor industry, which could not have advanced far beyond the 1980 level of progress without them - "right the first time" is the expectation for design of some of the most sophisticated products we use. No other high-tech industry I know has predictive models as good as the electronics industry, but perhaps this will be the collaborative effort that changes that.
Meanwnhile, ONAMI is still making exciting progress on all fronts (mechanisms of nanomaterial-biological interactions, rational design and microchannel reactor fabrication of nanomaterials, low-waste assembly of nanomaterials into devices) of our Safer Nanomaterials and Nanomanufacturing Initiative.
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