For the emerging field of nanotechnology to reach its full economic potential, the federal government must significantly increase funding for research on the environmental and safety implications of nanotechnology, witnesses representing both environmental groups and industry told the House Science Committee today. The non-government witnesses said research in this area is so important, that they would support redirecting existing nanotechnology research funds into this area.
Citing the enormous economic potential of nanotechnology -- the National Science Foundation expects it to be a $1 trillion industry by 2015 -- and the glaring gap in what we currently know about its potential impact on the environment and safety, the witnesses stated that environmental and safety research is critical to ensuring the technology is accepted by the public and allowed to thrive.
Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) said, “The need for more research on the environmental and safety aspects of nanotechnology is made amply clear by our non-governmental witnesses this morning, who speak in their written testimony with remarkable unity. Their message is clear and must be heeded: if nanotechnology is to fulfill its enormous economic potential, then we have to invest more right now in understanding what problems the technology might cause. This is the time to act -- before we cause problems. This is the time to act -- when there is a consensus among government, industry and environmentalists.”
“As we move forward with our federal investments in nanotechnology, we need to maintain the public’s trust,” said Environment, Technology, and Standards Subcommittee Chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI). “That will require smart investments in research, accurate assessments of risk, and steady communication with the public about what researchers know and don’t know. It will also require that environmental research and an appropriate regulatory framework for nanotechnology keep pace with the rapid growth of innovation and discovery.”
“As awareness of nanotechnology has grown, so has concern over its environmental, health and safety risks -- the prospect that nano-enabled products might harm workers, consumers, or ecosystems,” said Matthew Nordan, Vice President of Research at Lux Research. “Responsible development of nanotechnology -- to ensure that the U.S. obtains the full benefits of nanotechnology applications -- requires addressing both real and perceptual risks.” He added, “Even if studies showed every commercially relevant nanoparticle to be harmless in every real-world usage scenario, public skepticism about the safety of nanoparticles could still build and sharply limit the use of nanoparticles in products -- similar to the situation encountered with genetically modified organisms in Eurpoe.”
“[T]here is a tremendous opportunity with nanotechnology to ‘get it right,’” said David Rejeski, Director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Societies have missed this chance with other new technologies and, by doing so, have made costly mistakes. We think nanotechnology’s promised benefits are so great that we do not believe the United States and the rest of the world can afford to miscalculate or misstep with nanotechnologies.” Mr. Rejeski added that he believed the “window of opportunity” to inform and engage the public on nanotechnology is within the next year.
Dr. Clayton Teague, Director of the government’s National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, said that the federal government will invest $39 million dollars in fiscal year 2006 “on research and development whose primary purpose is to understand and address potential risks to health and the environment posed by exposure to nanomaterials and nanoproducts.”
The other witnesses, though, unanimously agreed that $39 million is insufficient. Dr. Richard Denison, Senior Scientist at Environmental Defense, told the Committee that the President of his organization and the Chief Executive Officer of DuPont called for $100 million in such funding in a June 2005 Wall Street Journal op-ed they co-authored.
If additional resources are not available, the witnesses said they would support redirecting existing nanotechnology research funds into environmental and safety research. Denison stated, “A remarkable and unusual consensus has emerged with respect to the federal government’s role in nanotechnology: Organizations as diverse as environmental NGOs, large chemical companies, nanotech startups, insurance companies and investment firms all agree that the federal government should be immediately directing many more of the dollars it is currently investing in nanotechnology development toward identifying and assessing the potential risks of nanomaterials to human health and the environment.”
In explaining why such research should be publicly funded, Dr. Krishna Doraiswamy, Research Planning Manager at DuPont Central Research and Development, said that the knowledge base, tools and methods that are developed to examine environmental and safety issues “need to be widely shared within the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Community.” He added that the public might also be skeptical of safety research conducted by the companies that are manufacturing nanomaterials.