A new report, "Nanotechnology: A Research Strategy for Addressing Risk," calls for major changes in the U.S. government's current handling of nanotechnology risk research.
The study, by Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, proposes for the first time a new comprehensive framework for systematically exploring nanotechnology's possible risks.
Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture things usually between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter; a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide.
"Without such an approach," Maynard predicts, "significant knowledge gaps -- which currently exist in all areas of nanotechnology risk assessment -- will persist. At best, these gaps create uncertainties -- and at worst, dangers -- for workers, companies, consumers, investors, and insurers."
According to Maynard's analysis, as little as $11 million of the more than one billion dollars the U.S. government annually invests in nanotechnology research and development is devoted to highly relevant research into what is safe and what is not. In addition to inadequate funding, the current federal nanotechnology risk research effort lacks a clear strategy and leadership.
To fill these gaps, Maynard argues that the federal government needs an overarching strategy and comprehensive set of research priorities. Initially, these would be aimed at identifying and measuring nanomaterials exposure and environmental release, evaluating nanomaterials toxicity, controlling the release of and exposure to engineered nanomaterials, and developing "best practices" for working safely with nanomaterials, and eventually at building capacity in predictive toxicology.
This research effort must be led by federal agencies with a clear mandate for oversight and for research of environmental, health and safety (EHS) risk -- for example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH).
Maynard estimates that oversight and EHS research agencies need a minimum budget of $50 million per year over the next two years to devote to highly relevant, targeted nanotechnology risk-based research, if critical knowledge gaps are to be addressed.
This amount is in addition to a complementary investment by federal agencies and departments participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) on basic and applications-focused research that has the potential to help further understanding of nanotechnology risk and to aid in the development of improved research tools.
"With over $32 billion worth of products incorporating nanotechnology sold in 2005, the question of whether nanotechnology products and applications are safe is one that is not going away," according to Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Director David Rejeski. The Project is a joint initiative of the Woodrow Wilson Center and The Pew Charitable Trusts.
"Nanotechnology is an emerging technology that offers us an opportunity to 'get it right' from the start," said Rejeski. "But action is needed now. Many of the same novel properties that give nanotechnologies the capacity to transform medicines, materials, and consumer products, may also present novel risks.