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 (see http://www.nanotechproject.org/index.php?id=7).
It 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). The report 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 percent,
would go toward EHS research.) However, at a November hearing of the
House Science Committee, several private-sector witnesses called that
"What is clear is the commercialization of the technology is outpacing
the development of . . . policies to assess and guard against adverse
environmental, health and safety consequences," declared Ranking
Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) at the November 17 hearing. Committee
Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) noted the "remarkable unity"
among nongovernmental witnesses that more investment is needed into
EHS research. 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.
David Rejeski of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies stated that
the NNI was doing "a fairly good job" in some areas of research
but that "large gaps" existed in other areas. Denison questioned
whether EHS research funding was being apportioned to the most appropriate
agencies and areas of research. To avoid slowing the pace of commercialization,
businesses need a solid base of EHS data and greater clarity about how
federal agencies will approach the regulation of NT, testified Matthew
Nordan of Lux Research Inc. "No regulatory agency that we're aware
of," he stated, "has articulated a clear and unambiguous plan
for how it will approach" nanotechnology regulation.
The January 2006 report addresses possible approaches to the management
and regulation of NT and the shortcomings in current regulatory options.
"The basic reason that it makes sense to regulate NT as a separate
category is that NT materials behave differently from conventional materials"
and their behavior cannot be predicted from the starting chemicals,
it explains. Management of this emerging field, the report says, must
take into account three aspects: defining the field, the rapid pace
of development, and possible adverse effects. The very definition of
what comprises nanotechnology is subject to "confusion and controversy,"
it says, and the way it is defined for regulation will impact "what
is regulated, how it is regulated, and how well a regulatory program
works." 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."
The report reviews existing regulatory authorities, and identifies
flaws and weaknesses with respect to regulating the field of NT. It
also looks at ways existing regulations could be coordinated, amended
and strengthened, describes the challenges to doing so, and points out
what shortcomings would still remain. It further notes that many regulatory
authorities "do not have the resources necessary to fulfill their
legal obligations." While acknowledging that enactment of a new
law to regulate NT would be nearly impossible in today's political climate,
the report nevertheless concludes that it might be "easier, politically
and substantively, to draft and enact a new law" than to try to
adapt existing ones. The report provides suggestions on what a law specifically
tailored for NT regulation might look like. It also discusses voluntary
programs for regulating NT and possible incentives to encourage industry
An earlier study from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, entitled
"Informed Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government"
(September 2005), surveyed public attitudes toward NT, asking questions
before and after providing participants with brief information on NT
and the relevant U.S. regulatory and policy-making bodies. It found
that the majority of participants initially knew almost nothing about
NT and doubted that Congress and the White House could be trusted to
protect public safety. After the briefing, half the participants felt
generally positive about NT. The majority felt that voluntary industry
standards would be insufficient to regulate NT but believed that banning
NT would be "overreacting." Opinions on the trustworthiness
of federal regulatory agencies varied. There was strong agreement on
several ways to increase public trust, including increased safety testing
before products reach the market, and providing more information to
consumers. The most important message of the survey, its author points
out, "is that a lack of information . . . breeds public mistrust
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," click on "Reports, Papers and Presentations."