Government criticized over nanotech research efforts

By Guy Montague-Jones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Wilson center, Nanotechnology

As the number of cosmetic products using
nanotechnology multiply, leading scientists have
criticized government for failing to develop an adequate
strategy for managing the health and environmental risks posed by
the technology.

The Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies described the latest federal government report, published in August, as a "'nano step forward" and "a simple - and even simplistic - list of priorities." The comments contibute to calls for greater regulation and add to growing public concern over the government's failure to take the potential risks surrounding nanotechnology seriously. The eight-page Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology Subcommittee (NSET) report contains a list of 12 priority topics related to research areas including human health and the environment, and identified plugging research gaps and the development of a strategy to address research priorities as the next steps. Both the Wilson Center and the American Society of Chemists expressed their frustration over the speed of progress, saying that a comprehensive strategy document for addressing identified research priorities should be developed soon. The Wilson Center was strongest in its criticisms, saying that the authors of the report, the National Science and Technology Council, had also failed to identify which federal agencies will be responsible for tackling particular research needs. "Currently, the federal nanotechnology risk research agenda is a bit like a ship without a captain, and it is unclear who has the responsibility to steer this ship in the right direction and make sure that it reaches its destination,"​ said David Rejeski, head of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. The Wilson Center also publishes a global inventory of products using nanotechnology that currently lists 75 cosmetics, 18 sunscreens and 58 personal care products. The organization expects these numbers to grow over the coming years, making the need for risk research all the more pressing. "As the commercialism of increasing of increasingly sophisticated nanotechnologies gathers pace, industry, regulators and the public need sound information, now more than ever, on which to base their decisions," said chief science advisor Andrew Maynard. "They also need the assurance that there is a strategy in place to fill knowledge gaps about risks as fast and efficiently as possible," added Maynard. The Wilson Center also argued that recent scientific research had raised concerns about the safety of nanotechnology, further strengthening the case for greater research into risks and an effective system for plugging knowledge gaps as they emerge. Rejeski pointed in particular to a paper published in the May 2007 edition of the National Academy of Sciences that found that certain nanomaterials may enhance the rate of amyloid protein fibrillation, which is associated with many serious diseases including Alzheimer's. The strength of the criticism reflects the fact that NSET had published a list of research priorities in September 2006 that had been criticized for lacking depth and not setting out a strategic plan. In response, Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, had said: "It was no surprise that there are some people awaiting the next steps and movement toward a strategic plan. And we're now one step closer to that goal." The frustration expressed by the Wilson Center and the American Society of Chemists reflects the fact that, in their eyes, the NSET has not moved noticeably closer to the goal of a strategic plan.

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