Large Effects of Nanotechnology
Gordon, Bart, Morris, Jeff, Rejeski, David, Issues in Science and Technology
Ronald Sandler and Christopher J. Bosso call attention to the opportunity afforded to the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to address the broad societal effects of what is widely anticipated to be a transformative technology ("Tiny Technology, Enormous Implications," Issues, Summer 2007).
From its beginnings, the federal agencies participating in the NNI have recognized that the program needs to support activities beyond research for advancing nanotechnology and have included funding for a program component called Societal Dimensions, which has a funding request of $98 million for fiscal year 2008.
The main emphasis of this program component has been to advance understanding of the environmental, health, and safety (EHS) aspects of the technology. This funding priority is appropriate because nanomaterials are appearing in more and more consumer products, while basic knowledge about which materials may be harmful to human heath or damaging to the environment is still largely unavailable. In fact, the NNI has been criticized for devoting too little of its budget to EHS research and for failing to develop a prioritized EHS research plan to inform the development of regulatory guidelines and requirements.
Nevertheless, the article is correct that there are other public policy issues that need to be considered before the technology advances too far. The NNI has made efforts in this direction. A sample of current National Science Foundation grants under its program on ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) issues in nanotechnology includes a study on ethical boundaries regarding the use of nanotechnology for human enhancement; a study on societal challenges arising from the movement of particular nanotechnology applications from the laboratory to the marketplace and an assessment of the extent to which existing government and policy have the capacity (resources, expertise, and authority) to deal with such challenges; a study on risk and the development of social action; and a project examining nanoscale science and engineering policymaking to improve understanding of intergovernmental relations in the domain of science policy.
Although the NNI is not ignoring broader societal impact issues, the question the article raises is whether the level of attention given and resources allocated to their examination are adequate. The House Science and Technology Committee, which I chair, will attempt to answer this question, and will examine other aspects of the NNI as part of its reauthorization process for the program that will be carried out during the current Congress.
REP. BART GORDON
Democrat of Tennessee
Chairman, U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology
The article by Ronald Sandler and Christopher J. Bosso raises important issues concerning the potential benefits and impacts of nanotechnology. The authors' focus on societal implications points to considerations that apply specifically to nanotechnology as well as generally to all new or emerging technologies. In striving to maximize the net societal benefit from nanotechnology, we need to examine how we can minimize any negative impacts and foresee--or at least prepare for--unintended consequences, which are inherent in the application of any new technology.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes that nanotechnology holds great promise for creating new materials with enhanced properties and attributes. Already, nanoscale materials are being used or tested in a wide range of products, such as sunscreens, composites, medical devices, and chemical catalysts. In our Nanotechnology White Paper (www.epa.gov/osa/nanotech.htm), we point out that the use of nanomaterials for environmental applications is also promising. For example, nanomaterials are being developed to improve vehicle fuel efficiency, enhance battery function, and remove contaminants from soil and groundwater.
The challenge for environmental protection is to ensure that, as nanomaterials are developed and used, we minimize any unintended consequences from exposures of humans and ecosystems. In addition, we need to understand how to best apply nanotechnology for pollution prevention, detection, monitoring, and cleanup. The key to such understanding is a strong body of scientific information; the sources of such information are the numerous environmental research and development activities being undertaken by government agencies, academia, and the private sector. For example, on September 25 and 26 of this year, the EPA is sponsoring a conference to advance the discussion of the use of nanomaterials to prevent pollution.
The EPA is working with other federal agencies to develop research portfolios that address critical ecological and human health needs. We are also collaborating with industry and academia to obtain needed information and identify knowledge gaps. Nanotechnology has a global reach, and international coordination is crucial. The EPA is playing a leadership role in a multinational effort through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to understand the potential environmental implications of manufactured nanomaterials. Also on the international front, we are coordinating research activities, cosponsoring workshops and symposia, and participating in various nanotechnology standards-setting initiatives.
We are at a point of great opportunity with nanotechnology. From the EPA's perspective, this opportunity includes using nanomaterials to prevent and solve environmental problems. We also have the challenge, and the responsibility, to identify and apply approaches to produce, use, recycle, and eventually dispose of nanomaterials in a manner that protects public health and safeguards the natural environment. Using nanotechnology for environmental protection and addressing any potential environmental hazard and exposure concern are important steps toward maximizing the benefits that society derives from nanotechnology.
Office of Science Policy
Office of Research and Development
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
I read with great interest the piece by Ronald Sandler and Christopher J. Bosso on nanotechnology. It is hard to argue with their assertion that the social and environmental implications of nanotechnology will be wide-ranging and deserve the attention of the government. However, their faith in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) as a mechanism to address these issues seems misplaced.
The NNI's governance and overall coordination are done through the National Science and Technology Council. To date, the NNI has functioned as an R & D coordination body, not a broader effort to develop innovative regulatory or social policy. It is questionable whether many of the issues that the authors raise, such as environmental justice, could be dealt with effectively by the NNI. Even some of the issues that lie within the NNI's competency and mandate have not been adequately addressed.
For example, six years after the establishment of the NNI, we lack a robust environmental, health, and safety (EH & S) risk research strategy for nanotechnology that sets clear priorities and backs these with adequate funding. The House Science Committee, at a hearing in September 2006, blasted the administration's strategy (Rep. Bart Gordon described the work as "juvenile"). A lack of transparency by the NNI prompted the Senate Commerce Committee in May 2006 to request that the General Accountability Office audit the agencies to find out what they are actually spending on relevant EH & S research and in what areas.
Another issue raised in the article that needs urgent attention is public engagement, which must go beyond the oneway delivery of information on nanotech through museums, government Web sites, and PBS specials. Though this need was clearly articulated in the 21st Century Nanotechnology R & D Act passed in 2003, the NNI has held one meeting, in May 2006, to explore how to approach public engagement, not to actually undertake it.
The authors correctly call for a regulatory approach that goes beyond the reactive incrementalism of the past decades. However, the Environmental Protection Agency's recent statement that the agency will treat nano-based substances like their bulk counterparts under the Toxic Substances Control Act--ignoring scale and structure-dependent properties that are the primary rationale of much NNI-funded research--hardly gives the impression of a government willing to step "out of the box" in terms of its regulatory thinking and responsibilities.
As more and more nano-based products move into the marketplace, the social and environmental issues will become more complex, the need for public engagement more urgent, and the push for effective oversight more critical. The authors are right in calling for the NNI to step up to these new challenges. The question is whether they can or will.
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
Woodrow Wilson Center
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Large Effects of Nanotechnology. Contributors: Gordon, Bart - Author, Morris, Jeff - Author, Rejeski, David - Author. Magazine title: Issues in Science and Technology. Volume: 24. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 2007. Page number: 9+. © 1999 National Academy of Sciences. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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