Large Effects of Nanotechnology

By Gordon, Bart; Morris, Jeff et al. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

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. …

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