Inform consumers or nanotechnology will fail in the marketplace

A recent public meeting of the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) heard a call for the public to be fully informed about the benefits and risks associated with nanotechnology.

In his presentation to PCAST, Andrew Maynard, Chief Scientist at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, said: “If the benefits are unclear and the risks uncertain, the products of nanotechnology will be a hard sell.”

At the meeting Maynard restated the recommendations contained in a landmark paper by 14 eminent scientists published last year in the journal Nature. But he then went further and proposed a significant increase in research funding for state agencies responsible for regulatory oversight. Maynard also called for the creation of better decision-making and coordination mechanisms.

One particularly pointed remark made to the assembled policymakers was that current US policy on nanotechnology risk management is “approaching 21st century technologies with a 20th century mindset.” The 20th century mindset to which Maynard refers is the belief that one can regulate on chemical composition alone.

“I made the point that nanotechnology challenges us in a number of areas, that will require changes in the way we think and act if we are to rise to them,” says Maynard. “And, of course, the ‘threat’ is that if the US doesn’t rise to the challenge of getting nanotech right, other countries will, giving them a competitive edge.” Worth noting here is that the EU’s Framework 7 call for proposals closely mirrors the recommendations laid out in the Nature paper.

Maynard adds that the development of safe and sustainable nanotechnologies necessitates moving away from discipline-based research, and the linear model that assumes basic research leads to applied research leads to new technologies and products. We should instead learn how to work together across traditional boundaries, he says, and focus on targeted rather than exploratory research in order to develop risk-based knowledge.

Further reading: Safe handling of nanotechnology, Maynard et al., Nature 444, 267 (2006).

Article first published in Nanomaterials News.