Nano Concerns and the Production of Useful Scientific Information

November 30th, 2005

Posted by: admin

Nanotechnology holds great promise for industry, business, medicine and more. As government and private industry ramp up support for nanotechnology research and development (about $1billion from the Feds last year alone), one has to wonder… what do we know about the safety of nanotechnology?

In the November 18 issue of Science, Robert Service reports on the truly amazing possibilities in treating cancer with nanotechnology. How’s this for cool: gold-covered nanoparticles that attach to cancer cells and then heat up to more than 40C, cooking the cancer cells to death! Stay tuned for the remake of the Incredible Journey… The article concludes with a brief discussion on the toxicity of nanoparticles, stating, “environmental health and safety agencies around the world continue to grapple with how best to regulate these novel materials.” Despite the promise of nanotech (indeed, it’s already being used in some products), research and development should proceed with one eye on potential benefits, and the other eye on possible harms. We should avoid moving so quickly that we find ourselves with the nanotech equivalent of asbestos, MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether… a gasoline additive now being phased out due to contamination in of groundwater and uncertainty regarding its health effects in large doses), or even worse, the dreaded ‘grey goo’.

However, before any health or environmental agency can regulate nanotechnology, agencies need information about the risks of nanotech. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of total R&D focuses on identifying such risks. Today, however, the NY Times reports, “the much smaller field that investigates the technology’s possible risks is also growing”. The Times continues: “The most comprehensive effort yet to provide such a research database is to go online today at… The database, which includes just over 200 research programs, also has a small number of projects financed by the European Union, Germany, Britain, Canada and Taiwan, as well as some work that has been paid for by the private sector.” I encourage you to visit the site, sponsored by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

In addition to the database, the Project’s Director, David Rejeski, recently testified before the House Science Committee. He identified four challenges regarding nanotech safety research needs: more transparency and disclosure of government research; the need for the Fed to address public perception of nanotech risks; perform a thorough analysis of regulatory and oversight institutions in order to assess their ability to address future safety issues; and the need to prepare for the unexpected.

I applaud the Project’s work and I view this as an important step in gathering and collating the necessary information to ensure public safety. While Rejeski rightly drives home the importance of transparency and legitimacy in research needs (a point which cannot be overstated), he missed one important factor concerning the production of useful research. For the scientific research to be useful, it also needs to be relevant. Does the nanotech safety research community know what kind of information policy makers may need? Are the researchers assessing the safety of nanotech at different scales and quantities? Do researchers take into account the political constraints and realities of policy making, that is, the more rapid pace of political decision-making, the need to make decisions under uncertainty, and the shorter strategic planning horizon characteristic of U.S. politics? More importantly, are researchers, regulators, industry, and other concerned stakeholders communicating about what research is available, needed, and useful?

While this point may seem obvious, research on the production of ‘useful’ information for a variety of environmental and health policy issues indicate that science and policy are often disconnected from each other. Scientists produce information that may not be relevant to policy makers, and in turn, policy makers’ information needs go unmet or they may be unaware of existing information. Nanotechnology safety research needs to be relevant, transparent, and intentional. While the promise of nanotechnology is exciting, uncertainties regarding its health and safety effects are too great to for ‘business as usual’ in the production of policy-relevant information. Time to bring scientists, stakeholders, policy makers, and industry together to develop a plan for the production of useful scientific information.

8 Responses to “Nano Concerns and the Production of Useful Scientific Information”

  1. Lisa Dilling Says:

    Hi Bets, you raise an interesting point, and one that I resonate with. One of the challenges in my mind, though, is how do you discover what is useful when the technology is just emerging or not even really apparent yet? I think it’s a big challenge, for all of our attempts to do research in a way that takes into account what decision makers need. Seems the default is to do as you mention earlier in your post– clean up the mess after the fact, only discovering too late what the most salient pieces of info. were. Do we have any good models for how to do this hand in hand with emerging technologies that aren’t yet defined?

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  3. Elizabeth Says:

    Thanks for the question, Lisa.

    I think the best approach to this is through an intentional and iterative process that involves all of the stakeholders early on. The idea behind this is two-fold. First, those individuals involved in the production, dissemination and use of such information get together, form relationships and build social capital early in the process. By social capital I mean how they relate to one another, trust, reciprocity, norms of behavior, etc. We know from the literature about social capital that it helps to reduce transaction costs and legitimizes the process of collaboration and the product of the scientific information. Let’s say for the moment that it is too early to identify exactly what constitutes useful information at this point. But by establishing the social institutions now that we will need in the future, we’ll be well positioned – having developed social capital among stakeholders – to ensure the production of information that is both salient and legitimate.

    Second, dealing with uncertainty is not a reason to wait for the mess to happen and then hope you have something that will clean up the grey goo. Uncertainty requires that those involved in the production of useful information be adaptive, incremental, and iterative. Guston and Sarewitz ( and scroll down to Guston and Sarewitz, 2002) capture the essence of this point in their paper, “Real Time Technology Assessment”. Uncertainty, they argue, is not a reason for inaction. They explain:

    “Individual decision makers, and societies at large, are constantly required to act on problems that are on some level unpredictable—from the behavior of the market to the occurrence of natural disasters. Moreover, decision making is an inherently forward-looking activity, in that some degree of expectation of what the future will look like underlies any decision. Thus, preparation for and resilience in the face of an unpredictable future is a core asset of any well-functioning society.”

    They continue:
    “Often, the best way to reduce uncertainty about the future of open systems is to make informed but incremental decisions and then see what happens. This approach favors (but does not ensure) consequences that are manageable and error-correction that is both politically and practically feasible… From this perspective, the key to successfully grappling with unpredictability is to build a decision process that is continuously reflexive, so that the attributes of and relations between co-evolving components of the system become apparent, and informed incremental response is feasible. Here, the role of social science is to achieve “not prediction with precision, [but] freedom through insight.” This perspective is consistent with approaches from several disciplines and goes by such names as “muddling through,” “adaptive management,” and “sophisticated trial-and-error.””

    I suggest the same approach can be used regarding the production of useful information regarding the safety of nanotech.

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  5. Jim Clarke Says:

    The overall message of communication presented by this article is of vital importance, but I would just like to point out that ‘regulation’ is often a double edged sword. It is interesting that the author picked asbestos and MTBE as examples of things that might not have happened with proper oversight.

    The oil companies had no desire to add MTBE to gasoline on their own. It was added in an attempt to meet the requirements of government imposed regulations. In this case, it was the more stringent regulations of one problem that produced another problem that many feel was worse.

    Asbestos has been an extremely useful and beneficial material, but an obvious and deadly risk to those who worked with it on a daily basis. The risk from asbestos is almost entirely upon asbestos workers, who certainly would have benefited from increased regulation. But the regulations demanding the removal of asbestos from existing uses have likely caused more harm than good. And it is impossible to say how many people’s lives have been saved by the use of asbestos as a fire retardant and insulator. Some structural engineers even sight the prohibition of asbestos in the upper floors of the World Trade Towers as the reason for their rapid collapse.

    In his latest book, Ray Kurzweil addresses the threat of nanotechnology and makes some interesting comparisons. He points to the primarily unregulated explosion of the internet. Along with that came the creation of computer viruses, but just as quickly came the development of the cure, or virus protection. All of this happened in the market place without any government or advocacy group regulation, and it seems to be working just fine.

    Certainly, the threat of a computer virus is not the same order of magnitude as nanotechnology gone wild, and no one is suggesting that the tech industry operate free from oversight. It is just that too much oversight can be a hindrance, not a help. Another example referred to in Kurzweil’s book, ‘The Coming Singularity’, is the biotech industry. This industry is heavily regulated and any new product must be handled with extreme trepidation and long, drawn out testing. In the process of trying to prove that a new product will do no harm, people who would have been cured by that product are dying by the hundreds and thousands. Also, regulations only apply to those who observe them. A truly evil biotechnologist with the proper funding and equipment, could build destructive biotech faster than legitimate groups, hampered by regulation, could build a cure.

    The point is that regulation, like anything else, is only effective if used in the proper amount. If misused, it can be just as dangerous as that which it regulates.

    Again, the author hits the nail on the head when she calls for clear and open lines of communication for all those involved with nanotechnology; from government to academia to private companies. I believe that all of these groups understand the threat and the promise of nanotechnology, and will be willing to work together to see the promise materialize and the threat diminish.

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  7. Elizabeth Says:

    Hi Jim,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I could not agree with you more that regulation can be a double-edged sword. The examples of asbestos and MTBE are consistent with the theme of unintended consequences that I try to address in my posting. Yet, as you point out, over/bad/misguided regulation, brought about for a variety of reasons, also played a role in the less than desirable outcomes. However, one has to wonder if the open lines of communication, the social capital, and the inclusion of all stakeholders had existed earlier on in the regulatory process, would the outcomes have changed?

    You also make some good points regarding some of the challenges in the development of biotechnology products. I don’t know bupkiss about the biotech industry, but I wonder how correlated the level of oversight is with public perceptions about biotech? I would be interested to hear what people think. My point is this: we know there will probably be some level of regulation in nanotech, and ‘useful’ information would certainly expand policy alternatives in the regulatory process. Setting up the mechanisms by which useful information can be produced, and thus creating the social capital early on, will help to legitimize the process and may even influence the regulatory process in such a way that ‘better’ decisions are made based on the ‘useful’ information. The importance of transparency and trust cannot be overlooked. Imagine if the nanotech industry established itself – early on – as fully transparent, inclusive, responsive, and responsible, and unilaterally increased its own financial commitment to nanotech safety research? Perhaps such a move would allow the nanotech world to self-regulate, a situation more desirable than that which the biotech industry currently finds itself. (Please…no need to comment on why biotech is regulated and the FDA…and why nanotech may be too in some cases.)

    Final thought…I would be curious to hear from folks who find fault with the notion of producing ‘useful’ information, not just as an outcome, but also as a process that has other intrinsic benefits. In other words, would the adoption of the processes I have suggested (as well as the nanotechproject) be more likely or less likely to produce better regulations, for both industry and society? Again, thanks for your comments, Jim.

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  9. Roger Says:

    Ultimately, people have to make a cost-versus-benefit decision. The benefits of nanotechnology are well recognized by scientists and our federal government, which has put over a billion dollars into the area. But there will almost certainly be costs to implementing the nanotechnology. To try to stick your head in the sand and say, Oh no, all of nanotechnology will only result in perfectly safe and good technologies is simplistic. A number of very powerful organizations like Greenpeace, specifically the ones that went after genetically modified organisms, are beginning to look at nanotechnology. As a technical person, you have to listen to these groups and take their fears seriously. If it were a perfect world, we wouldn’t think about this topic for 10 years. And then all the data would be there, and we would make a good decision. But the fact of the matter is that society will be forced to make a decision in the absence of data. I don’t know what the technical answers are yet. I can only tell you that it is a very diverse and complex problem. There are going to be a lot of different answers. And, yeah, I’m anxious about when that first paper on the health effects of nanomaterials publishes.

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  11. Roman Says:

    It sounds so revolutional for me. I have a question. I’ve heard that most viruses die when you heat them up to 40 C. Is there any possibilities to use those nanoparticles to attack viruses inside the body?

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  13. Elizabeth Says:

    Hi Roman,

    Great question! Now that would be a great application of nanotech. Again, I’m not biotechy or even nanotechy, but let me take a stab at it. First, cancer cells tend to be concentrated in particular areas so they are easier to target. Second, cancer cells are also a lot bigger than viruses, so again, they are probably easier for the nanoparticles to find. I imagine it may only be a matter of time before this happens, but whether the potential toxicity of the nanoparticles is offset by the benefit of killing viruses is hard to tell.

    Other than that, I haven’t a clue but would love to hear from anyone out there who might know about applying the same technology to viruses.

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  15. eric blair Says:

    collating the necessary information to ensure public safety.

    ‘Nanoparticles’ (read really small bits) are known to be a biological threat.

    Ape brains come under attack from inhaled carbon nanoparticles (late 1940’s or was it the 60’s?) Fish brains attacked with carbon buckyballs are introduced into the water. (Late 1990’s)

    And studies about about the issues of cooking smoke and its effects are all about.

    You are right to be worried over a lack of research into the effects.