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March 2006 (Volume 15, Number 3)
A new report concludes that while the potential benefits of nanotechnology are "almost limitless," little is known about its possible harmful effects, and the benefits will be realized only if adverse consequences "are examined and managed."
The January 2006 report, entitled "Managing the Effects of Nanotechnology," was released by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts. The author of the report, Terry Davies, is a senior advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, and a senior Fellow at Resources for the Future.
The report finds that while strong government management and oversight is needed, existing laws and regulations suffer from major shortcomings and would be difficult to adapt to the production and use of nanotechnologies (NT). It also offers suggestions for management mechanisms, institutional capabilities, and regulatory authority, but acknowledges the political obstacles in the way of new or enhanced regulation.
This report follows a September 2005 survey of public attitudes toward NT, also from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, which found that respondents knew little about NT, questioned the commitment of government and industry to public safety, and wanted more knowledge available to consumers.
Many voices in Congress and industry have been touting the potentially dramatic consumer and health benefits that could result from the emerging field of NT. But it is widely recognized that not enough is yet known about the possible environmental, health, and safety (EHS) concerns arising from such novel materials, and that public fears about real or imagined risks could stall broad acceptance and limit the beneficial uses of the technology. Past examples of public perceptions limiting the widespread utilization of technologies such as genetically-modified organisms and nuclear power are often cited as precautionary tales.
To address public concerns, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), the multi-agency federal program to foster NT development, includes funding for research into possible EHS impacts. (Of the Bush Administration's $1.1 billion FY 2006 request for NNI, about $38.5 million, or 4%, would go toward EHS research.) However, at a November hearing of the House Science Committee, several private-sector witnesses called that amount inadequate.
But with substantial new funding unlikely, witnesses were less unified when pressed on how much funding was the right amount and how funds should be reprogrammed. Richard Denison of Environmental Defense suggested "at least $100 million annually for at least the next several years," while Clayton Teague of the NNI Coordination Office countered that the current amount was adequate, given the funding available.
The report cautions that with the field's rapid progress, delays caused by government regulation could be costly to industry, especially to small firms. It also warns that information about possible harmful effects is likely to "lag behind commercial applications." However, according to the report, even the early, fragmentary data available on adverse consequences "is enough to show that there are potential or actual effects that warrant concern."
Both reports are available on the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies site at http://www.nanotechproject.org/. The January 2006 report, "Managing the Effects of Nanotechnology," can be found under the heading "Getting Nanotech Right: A New Report on Government Oversight of Nanotechnology." To find the September 2005 report, "Informed Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government," [pdf] click on "Reports, Papers and Presentations."
Courtesy of FYI, the American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News (http://aip.org/fyi).
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