Environmental Defense urges restructuring of US National Nanotechnology Initiative

Amid growing concern among environmentalists and some policy experts that the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is not adequately addressing the potential risks of the new technology, Environmental Defense is urging a restructuring of the agency to resolve what it sees as a conflict of interest between nanotechnology promotion and oversight.

Environmental Defense cites precedent for such a move. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which was first established in 1946, was tasked with both promoting the development of nuclear power and regulating its safety. Unease with this arrangement led to Congress abolishing the AEC in 1975, and assigning its risk research and oversight functions to a new entity, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Nuclear R&D efforts are now the responsibility of the Department of Energy.

“Environmental Defense believes that a fundamental restructuring along two lines is needed,” says Environmental Defense senior scientist Richard Denison. “First, an entity under the NNI devoted specifically to pursuing the risk implications of nanotechnology needs to created or substantially elevated in importance, and given ample decision-making and budgetary authority to develop and implement a risk research and mitigation strategy across the federal government. Second, this entity needs to be clearly separated and operate independently from those parts of the NNI dedicated to promoting nanotechnology’s development and applications.”

Denison made the call in recent testimony before the US House of Representatives’ Science and Technology Committee. As part of his presentation, Denison included statements from senior officials that downplay evidence of nanomaterials risks, and suggest that the risks are being overblown. This is at odds with the scientific literature, says Denison. “They appear to reflect both the dearth of health and environmental expertise within the management of NNI, and a view that concerns about risks should be downplayed lest they impede nanotechnology’s development.”

Further reading: “Nanotechnology: Increase Risk Research”, Environmental Defense (2007).

Article first published in Nanomaterials News.