Setting the nanotech research agenda

By Andrew Maynard | January 14, 2008

In December 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Twenty-first Century Nanotechnology Research & Development Act, establishing a framework for enabling what some have described as “the next industrial revolution.” Four years on, the act is up for reauthorization. As legislators grapple with how the nanotechnology landscape has changed in the intervening years, they face the complex task of continuing to ensure U.S. leadership in the development of nanotechnologies that are successful, sustainable, and above all, safe.

Nanotechnology is opening up new avenues of manipulating matter on a scale a little larger than atoms and molecules–the stuff that makes up the world we live in. The instruments of nanotechnology allow researchers to see and manipulate small nanometer-scale clusters of matter and even individual atoms. And because this toolbox is not constrained to any one discipline, it encourages cross-fertilization between different areas of study. If scientists can manipulate matter in new ways, perhaps tapping into unique phenomena that only appear in small groups of atoms, and if they can transcend barriers that conventionally isolate research fields, they have the chance to address some of the greatest challenges facing society–poverty, disease, renewable energy, and even old age. And they also have a powerful economic driver–the possibility of creating wealth and jobs through exploiting nanotechnology’s promise ahead of the competition.

But all is not a bed of roses in the nanotech garden. Just as every action has a reaction, every technology has consequences–and the more innovative the technology, the more uncertain the consequences. Will the products of nanotechnology lead to new health and environmental risks? Does our ability to tinker with matter at the finest scale raise new ethical issues? Who is reaping the benefits of new nanotech applications, and who is paying the price?

These are not trivial questions. The twentieth century is littered with examples of promising technologies that did not perform as expected, because the consequences were not thought through. In some cases, these involved real dangers–nuclear power, for instance. In others, society was not willing or ready to accept technological advances that were thrust on them with little or no consultation. Either way, the lessons are clear: Look before you leap, and engage interested parties as early as possible.

The 2003 act set out to ensure a sound research and development base for U.S. nanotech leadership by authorizing funding of nearly $4 billion over the course of four years. It also recognized the need to consider the implications of nanotechnology if the rewards are to be realized. In a list of 11 program activities, the tenth stipulated that “legal, ethical, environmental and other appropriate societal concerns . . . are considered during the development of nanotechnology.”

Since the act became law, researchers, businesses, and policy makers have been paying more and more attention to the challenges of developing sustainable and safe nanotechnologies, spurred by a growing body of research that suggests conventional thinking is limited regarding emerging engineered nanomaterials. Scientists already know that nanometer-scale materials can get to places in the human body and the environment that are inaccessible to larger clumps of material and to individual atoms and molecules. There is also evidence that humans and other organisms respond to some nanomaterials in unpredictable ways. And while research is still at an early stage, it seems that certain engineered nanomaterials have the potential to interfere with biological systems at the most fundamental level, possibly altering the behavior of DNA and proteins. For instance, researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have used computer models to demonstrate how buckyballs might deform DNA–if they are able to penetrate to a cell’s nucleus; while researchers in Dublin, Ireland, have published evidence of nanoparticle-mediated changes in protein structure that could potentially initiate or exacerbate certain diseases.

Much of this research is at a very early stage, and probably does not apply to many nanomaterials in use or under development. Nevertheless, it raises warning flags suggesting unfortunate consequences if we do not have the foresight to learn the new rules of safe use for new nanotechnologies. And despite the impetus provided by the 2003 act, the development of coherent policies for developing and using emerging nanotechnologies as safely as possible remains a painfully slow process. As Washington State Cong. Brian Baird, chair of the House Science Subcommittee on Research & Science Education, said of the federal government nanotechnology risk research strategy at an October 2007 hearing: “I am genuinely puzzled why more progress has not been made to develop this research strategy and plan that everyone believes is necessary for the successful development of nanotechnology.”

Beyond the possibilities of bodily and environmental harm are broader social, ethical, and legal questions. It is one thing to say that we can change the world with nanotechnology, but it is something else to ask “should we?” Who should be guiding decisions on how nanotechnology is used, who receives the benefits and who bears the cost? Should research into human enhancement using nanotechnology be pursued? Will potential sub-microscopic surveillance devices compromise individual privacy?

The as-yet elusive answers to these and similar questions are beyond the scope of scientific research, and will depend on nanotech stakeholders agreeing on what is appropriate. But here’s the rub: If nanotechnology is to develop into what it could be, these stakeholders will include members of the public–who will need to know what nanotechnology is, and how to engage with decision makers, if considered and informed answers are to be arrived at.

Following the 2003 act, the federal government established two Centers for Nanotechnology in Society–academic centers to explore the nano-social interface. These centers–one at Arizona State University, the other at the University of California Santa Barbara–have begun the long process of mapping out what issues nanotechnology raises, and the dynamics of how people respond to and engage in new nanotech developments. This capacity to observe the social integration of a new technology firsthand is a unique experiment in itself, and is providing new opportunities to develop an effective interplay between citizens and science. As researchers at Arizona State University are discovering, this interplay is as much about helping scientists consider a broader set of values in their work, as it is about enabling citizens to make informed decisions. Both of these centers are in their infancy, and there is a long way to go before the academic becomes the practical, leading to widespread and informed engagement in the social side of making nanotechnology work.

Now more than ever, the future of nanotechnology hangs on understanding the potential risks, managing them effectively, and engaging stakeholders in the decision-making process. But this progress will not happen spontaneously. The country needs a strategy that ensures the right safety research is funded and that the results are translated into sound policy decisions; a plan for informing and engaging people on the future course of the technology; and the foresight to see what nanotechnology could become, and how to get there.

In the past, the philosophy behind new technologies has frequently been “take care of the benefits, and the risks will take care of themselves”–often with disastrous consequences. But this is a largely false dichotomy between risks and benefits. In reality the two are closely linked, and taking care of the health, environmental, and social challenges of nanotechnology will help unlock the technology’s many benefits. The Twenty-first Century Nanotechnology Research & Development Act placed the U.S. on a firm footing toward developing innovative nanotechnologies. Now the challenge is to develop safe and sustainable nanotechnologies. If the 2008 reauthorization of the act reflects this, it will help put the U.S. on course for a sustainable, successful, and above all safe, nanotech future.

Together, we make the world safer.

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Topics: Biosecurity, Opinion

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