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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies > Guidance for getting nano right

David Rejeski
Director
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Abstract:
The National Research Council (NRC), which carries out studies for the U.S. National Academies, released a report in December that highlights the significant shortfalls of the Bush administration in identifying and addressing the environment, health and safety (EHS) risks posed by engineered nanomaterials - a backbone of worldwide innovation. The NRC report, which was authored by an independent body of experts, echoes many of the findings of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) over the past few years regarding the federal government's lack of resources and a strategy to address the risks of these materials.

January 5th, 2009

Guidance for getting nano right

The National Research Council (NRC), which carries out studies for the U.S. National Academies, released a report in December that highlights the significant shortfalls of the Bush administration in identifying and addressing the environment, health and safety (EHS) risks posed by engineered nanomaterials - a backbone of worldwide innovation. The NRC report, which was authored by an independent body of experts, echoes many of the findings of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) over the past few years regarding the federal government's lack of resources and a strategy to address the risks of these materials.

The NRC report makes painfully clear that there has never been a strategy under the Bush administration for guiding nanotechnology risk research. A Republican congressman once referred to a draft of the administration's research planning effort as a "laundry list." His Democratic colleague called the same document a "juvenile piece of work." So the NRC report offers an opportunity for the Obama administration to get nanotechnology policy right. But one should not underestimate the size of the course correction that will be needed both at a White House and agency level to address years of declining public confidence in our government to manage risks associated with everything from consumer products to food to financial investments.

One of PEN's major messages is that without a comprehensive strategy to understand the risks posed by engineered nanomaterials, there could be public backlash against this technology - one that could greatly improve daily life and the health of the planet. As I said in testimony before a Senate subcommittee in May 2008, if government and industry do not work to build public confidence in nanotechnology by proactively addressing any emerging risks, consumers may reach for the "No-Nano" label.

Public perceptions can have large economic impacts. As this technology advances, the lack of a comprehensive strategic risk research plan could clearly jeopardize the $14 billion investment governments and private industry worldwide have made in nanotechnology, as well as its great promise for huge advancements in health care, energy and manufacturing. As noted in the new NRC report, "An effective national EHS strategic research plan is essential to the successful development of and public acceptance of nanotechnology-enabled products."

The federal government's effort so far has resulted in limited understanding of the risks posed by the novel nano-based materials, and it has also created a web of confusion concerning the actual resources that are being allocated to improving our knowledge of these risks. PEN's analyses over the past three years have highlighted a substantial over-inflation of the government's nanotechnology risk-research investment figures. These findings were echoed by a Government Accountability Office report from last year and the new NRC report, which says, "The committee is concerned that the actual amount of federal funding specifically addressing the EHS risks posed by nanotechnology is far less than portrayed in the [National Nanotechnology Initiative] document and may be inadequate."
To further harp about the missed opportunities of the Bush administration to address the risks posed by nanomaterials and foster public trust would be a waste of time. The coming years provide an opportunity for the Obama administration to learn from the past.
"The committee concludes that if no new resources are provided and the current levels of agency funding continue, the research that is generated cannot adequately evaluate the potential health and environment risks and effects associated with engineered nanomaterials to address the uncertainties in current understanding," the NRC report says. "Such an evaluation is critical for ensuring that the future of nanotechnology is not burdened by uncertainties and innuendo about potential adverse health and environmental effects."
So here you are, President-elect Obama, guidance for getting nano right.

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