US plans on nanotech risk assessment criticised by experts

A US government plan to prioritise research into the potential environmental, health and safety impacts of engineered nanomaterials has been strongly criticised by experts at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN).

Responding to a call for public comment on the government’s interim report, PEN director David Rejeski claims that the plan has so many failings that it begs the question as to whether the National Nanotechnology Initiative can deliver an effective risk strategy. The document in question was prepared by a working group of the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee (NSET), which is part of the National Science and Technology Council.

“What perplexes us is the amount of time it is taking the government to develop a robust strategy, given the fact that they have some excellent people working on this, and there is already a lot of material they can build on,” says Rejeski. “This is the bureaucratic tortoise racing the technological hare.”

PEN chief scientist Andrew Maynard adds: “If the US is to maintain leadership in developing nanotechnologies that are both beneficial and safe, the administration needs to move on from simply making a flawed plan look good, and start to develop a robust strategy for understanding and avoiding potential risks.”

Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, points out that of the 10 public comments received to date, the majority do not reflect the negative comments of Rejeski and Maynard.

“Most of those who have submitted comments appreciate the complexity of this undertaking,” says Teague. “The couple of advocacy groups that have criticised this process apparently have a somewhat naive view of an extremely complex scientific area, and the broad needs of many regulatory agencies for thoroughly validated information in order to ensure public safety.”

Teague explains that the inter-agency group is currently analysing in detail the current research portfolio, following which a strategy to address unmet research needs will be developed.

Further reading: Prioritization of Environmental, Health, and Safety Research Needs for Engineered Nanoscale Materials: An Interim Document for Public Comment: Comments on Process, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, September 2007.

Article first published in Nanomaterials News.