Nanotechnology: Paving the Way for the Little Guy

April 9th, 2004

Posted by: admin

by T.S. Ryen

The U.S. government must nurture and oversee the burgeoning field on nanotechnology.

Occasionally, scientific and technical discoveries open up vast new disciplines, and herald new inventions that fundamentally change our way of life. For instance, engines, planes, and computers have drastically changed our society in just the last few centuries and even decades. Now, scientists and engineers around the world work feverishly in a field that promises even greater transformations; nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology describes a range of products and procedures that utilize properties at miniscule sizes, less than 1/10th the diameter of a human hair or 100 nanometers. Working at this tiny scale, researchers can take advantage of unique and sometimes entirely unexpected properties to produce tremendous new products. Nanotechnology will produce materials built atom by atom that are vastly stronger and lighter than any in existence today. Doctors may create new drugs that seek out diseased cells. Nanotechnology has already arrived, in fact, in stain resistant Docker’s pants and new systems to purify water.

Much work remains however, and most nanotech products lie many years away, yet a nanotech future is imminent and we had better prepare. For along with the potential for economic gain and furthering U.S. prominence in science and engineering, nanotechnology brings risk as well. Just as cars have brought tremendous personal freedom to travel, yet kill over 40,000 people a year in the U.S.; nanotechnology will have costs as well. The novel properties that make nanotechnology so exciting are not benign, nature’s laws do not play favorites. As pointed out in a recent New York Times article by Barneby Feder, toxicology studies of nanomaterials lag far behind the creation of new ones. Yet even materials like carbon, that seem innocuous, have proven exceptionally toxic in the form of tiny ‘nanotubes’ through the risk of inhalation and suffocation. The health, environmental, and social effects of nanotechnology products are not known, and current practice will not discover harms before it is too late.

The federal government actively funds nanotechnology research. The National Nanotechnology Initiative was begun by President Clinton in 2000, and has funding billions of dollars in research and development efforts. Last week, Congress approved the 21st Century Nanotechnology Development Act, creating a permanent place for nanotechnology within federal science funding, and beginning to address the broader needs of nanotechnology through the National Nanotechnology Program. The bill provides for public input and monies for research into the ethical, legal, and environmental concerns, but does not go far enough.

Research alone will not help nanotechnology mature into a responsible industry. Through this act, the government will continue to fund research based on identifying and containing harms well below research and development activities. Even if this investment were greatly enhanced, there remains no mechanism for action if and when problems are found. Current efforts amount to watching what the kids are doing, but having no authority to act when you catch them misbehaving.

The industry needs a clear statement from the public and government on what precautions are needed while developing nanotechnology products. Lack of clarity has left companies and researchers guessing what measures they should take, creating a system ripe for abuse. The FDA, EPA, and other regulatory agencies should cooperate to take substantial steps to blaze a path to market for nanotechnology products. Straightforward guidelines will ensure that all nanotechnology research contains safeguards that appropriately contain risk, provide efficiency to new product production, and give the public confidence in this emerging market.

Nanotechnology includes real risks and great awards, but a single-minded obsession with either will only result in failure. Simple steps now can have profoundly positive effects on the long-term viability and success of nanotechnology. It’s time to give the little guy a hand.

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