Archive for the ‘Author: Fisher, E.’ Category

New Nanotechnology Inventory

March 13th, 2006

Posted by: admin

On Friday, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies released an inventory of 200 existing consumer products that claim to incorporate nanotechnology.

Here is a link to the inventory.

The inventory has implications both for the economic value of nanotech investments (currently over $1 Billion in US federal funding alone), and also for the EHS (Environmental, Health, and Safety) dimenions of nanotech in society. We might think of these as conflicting understandings of “health” – one focused on economic health, the other on human and environmental health.

Not too long ago, a report “slammed” nanotech research and its funding for not delivering economically. The Wilson Center’s inventory may this reassure some as a contrary indicator.

On the other hand, Congress held hearings late last year and last month to explore EHS issues related to nanotech. The Wilson inventory may thus also raise alarms about health and safety.


Which ethics policy for nanotechnology?

July 7th, 2005

Posted by: admin

Last week during a House Science subcommittee hearing, “Nanotechnology: Where Does the U.S. Stand?”(), there was a testy exchange on the role of ethical impact assessment in nanotechnology and who determines this. The focus of the hearing was on how U.S. nanotechnology activities “measure up” to international competition, and one question asked about barriers to nanotechnology commercialization.

The hearing comes on the heals of an assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a report that was required by the 2003 act authorizing federal funding for nanotech R&D. This law called for a National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel to conduct the assessment. In 2004, President Bush designated PCAST as the NNAP.

The law requires NNI activities to integrate research on ethical concerns surrounding nanotechnology into R&D activities, and requires the NNAC (now PCAST) to assess “whether societal, ethical, legal, environmental, and workforce concerns are adequately addressed by the [NNI]” and to make recommendations for improvement. The PCAST report, however, can be interpreted as fairly insubstantial in its treatment of how ethical concerns are being addressed (see Howard Lovy’s entertaining summary). For instance, in stressing the role of “sound science” over “perceived fears,” the language of the report appears to downplay the role of ongoing ethical assessment with respect to R&D activities.


Blackouts Are Inevitable

August 12th, 2004

Posted by: admin

An editorial in the Washington Post on Aug. 10, “Blackouts Are Inevitable”, argues that it’s not possible to prevent future blackouts. Instead, they suggest we should focus on fulfilling the mission of the electricity system and making the kind of changes that successfully transformed the air traffic control system.

They write:

“While making obvious improvements in control and operation of the grid, we should focus the greater part of our effort on fulfilling the mission of the electricity system, not on trying to prevent blackouts. When hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms or other problems black out the system, backup generators at hospitals, airports and other critical institutions prevent their missions from being interrupted.”

The editorial suggests a very different approach than that being articulated in Washington, such as using cost-effective and creative engineering approaches to accomplish critical missions. It ends with listing four tasks to accomplish their proposed objectives:

“The first task is to list the important missions that are accomplished by the electricity system. The second is to rank these missions in order of priority. Third, we must identify which missions are already protected. The fourth and final task is to find cost-effective ways of accomplishing the most important missions when the power fails.”

Nanotech Authority

August 9th, 2004

Posted by: admin

A recent report by Britain’s Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering entitled ‘Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties’, calls for public debate regarding the development of nanotechnologies and research into their health and environmental effects.

The report has occasioned editorials such as one posted on SciDev.Net by David Dickson.

Dickson suggests the report points to two key challenges facing nanotechnology and nanoscience: adequately ensuring that nanotechnologies address the needs of the world’s poor and building social markets favorable to nanotechnologies.

To address the risk of a “nano-divide” between the world’s rich and poor nations, Dickson calls for the development of nanotech skills among poorer nations, dissemination channels for nano products, and informed public debate.

Characterizing the content of this debate, Dickson writes: “informed public debate…must include authoritative information about potential health and environmental consequences; there is no room for those who dismiss all such concerns as merely the unreasonable demands of whose who seek a risk-free society.”

It is not always clear on what basis information should be considered “authoritative” nor who should decide this. The approach outlined by Dickson would seem to include information and demands that might otherwise be disqualified on the grounds of being “unreasonable.” This type of approach may be encouraging to those who would make such demands, but it stops short of outlining what counts as “reasonable.”

While defining “reasonable demands” is risky business, without clear parameters, what gets debated could too easily be determined by the agendas of those who get to decide, rather than by a reasonable process.

On Not Regulating the Regulators

July 26th, 2004

Posted by: admin

An article in the New York Times this weekend describes the Bush administration’s opposition to consumer lawsuits regarding products approved by the FDA (“In a Shift, Bush Moves to Block Medical Suits”).

There are serious considerations involved in allowing a potential onslaught of such lawsuits, including their possible effect on health costs, the availability of medical products on the market, and the possibility that states would reach different conclusions regarding the safety of a medical device.

According to the article, the administration states that different conclusions would lead to “chaos for the regulated industry and F.D.A.” That may be so, and yet this possibility raises grave questions about the goal of having clear and straightforward regulatory policy if it comes at the expense of credibility in the eyes of the public.

The administration is banking on the credibility of the FDA: “if” (according to the article) “a local judge or jury finds that a drug or device is unsafe, it is in direct conflict with the conclusion reached by the F.D.A. after years of rigorous testing and evaluation.”

Surely, expensive and rigorous testing must count for something. But for how much? Unassailability on the part of the product once it has been approved? That argument may work when the buyer is held responsible for his or her decision to purchase and use a product. But making the FDA responsible arguably takes the responsibility away from the consumer and undercuts the “buyer beware” argument.

The case is complicated (alas, not simplified) by the role of expertise, namely scientific expertise. The government position is based on the belief that consumer lawsuits would “interfere with federal regulation of drugs and devices, by encouraging “lay judges and juries to second-guess” experts at the F.D.A.” (ibid).

Deciding that “tested” science is unassailable is not quite the same as deciding that “proven” science is unassailable. Few today would endorse dragging Galileo or his contributions to trail. Furthermore, no one wants to see competent science and engineering innovations senselessly punished. Yet, circularly making medical drugs and devices immune from lawsuits on the grounds of the scientific expertise that underlies them amounts to technocratic tyranny.

Should attending to the need for clear regulation come at the cost of the need for such regulation in the first place?