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Emerging technologies -- such as nanotechnology and biotechnology -- provide great benefit along with potential risk. Should the consumer be worried about products in the marketplace that use these technologies? How do we know these products are safe? In a new article co-authored by University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute associate professor Jennifer Kuzma titled "An Integrated Approach to Oversight Assessment for Emerging Technologies," she and her colleagues offer a detailed analysis of oversight and regulation procedures designed to protect the user.
U.S. government agencies have been charged with oversight of research and technology to ensure the safety of people and animals as well as to protect the environment. According to Kuzma, we cannot rely on these current oversight bodies to regulate the kind of emerging technologies we're seeing today.
"Nanotechnology is a great example. It has the potential to advance medicine, agriculture, health and environmental science and provide great benefits to society, but there may be safety concerns related to the special properties of nanoparticles, such as their greater abilities to penetrate and move across organs and cells in biological systems," said Kuzma. "The U.S. oversight system currently relies on agencies and regulations designed for related technologies, but they are not equipped to adequately handle the novel properties and unique challenges associated with nanotechnology. In fact, oversight issues associated with applications for agriculture and food remain largely unexplored."
How do we determine if we have the right oversight bodies in place? Previous analysis of oversight systems has been conducted through only one or a few perspectives using a small set of criteria often focused on a particular discipline. However, today's emerging technologies involve multiple stakeholders with various viewpoints, values and concerns. According to Kuzma, modern analysis of our systems requires a holistic, integrated approach.
"To meet the needs and values of all stakeholders involved, we must consider new technologies from a variety of perspectives. For example, some stakeholders are more concerned about the economic benefits of new technology, while others care primarily about the health and environmental impact," said Kuzma. "Our goal was to develop a multidisciplinary approach to more comprehensively evaluate oversight systems for emerging technologies."
Kuzma and her colleagues developed a broad set of multidisciplinary criteria that could be applied to characterize and evaluate any oversight system for technological products and applications. They divided these criteria into categories to explore the development, attributes, outcomes and evolution of oversight systems.
"We anticipate that this new approach will be a valuable tool for analyzing multiple perspectives, features, outcomes and tradeoffs of oversight systems," said Kuzma. "Such an approach that incorporates the viewpoints of key disciplines and the perspectives of multiple stakeholders could help to ameliorate controversy and conflict as new technologies emerge and oversight systems for them are considered and deployed."
The full article is available in the August issue of Risk Analysis, which also includes a second article by Kuzma and colleagues applying oversight assessment to six detailed case studies specifically for agrifood nanotechnology. More information also may be found online at the Center for Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Visit www.hhh.umn.edu/centers/stpp/index.php.
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