Managing The Effects Of Nanotechnology – Future Developments Through International Institutional Co-Operation and Public Participation

This paper is extracted from the report “Managing The Effects of Nanotechnology” and has two purposes. The first is to describe the menu of possibilities for government action to deal with the adverse effects of nanotechnology. If there are important alternatives that are not described here it is because of inadvertence or ignorance.

The second purpose is to provide evidence relevant for determining what needs to be done to manage nanotechnology. When I began this work, my initial assumption was that there was no need for new statutory authority. As I learned more about the unique aspects of nanotechnology and thought more about the weaknesses of existing statutes, I was increasingly led to the conclusion that a new law is needed. This paper, however, is not an advocacy piece for a new law. It would have been written quite differently if that were its purpose. Rather, it is a policy analysis, intended to give the reader the information relevant for thinking about a course of action.

In short, the paper is intended to inform, not persuade.

New Institutional Capabilities

Dealing successfully with nanotechnology’s adverse effects will require the establishment of new institutions or institutional mechanisms. While necessary to deal with nanotechnology, these institutions and mechanisms also are necessary for dealing with a wide variety of other problems and policies.

Although they are discussed in the context of nanotechnology, their broader relevance should be kept in mind. The four most important functions that require institutional strengthening and innovation are international harmonization, foresight capability, research and public participation.

International Harmonization

Any effort to address nanotechnology must be international in scope. Every aspect of the new technology is international. As noted above, research on nanotechnology is being conducted in a large number of countries. Research and development are not limited to OECD nations - South Korea, China, India and Brazil, among others, are major players. Furthermore, most of the firms marketing or likely to market nanotechnology products engage in international outsourcing, licensing of firms in other countries, and other actions across national boundaries that make the notion of “country of origin” seem quite outdated.

A regulatory regime for nanotechnology should have international coordination built into it. The failure of the U.S.TSCA to do this is one of its many weaknesses. The section of this paper that discussed creation of a new law described some ways this might be done. Additional ideas are needed. An international coordinating body would greatly strengthen national efforts to manage nanotechnology. One possibility is for OECD to establish an International Council on the Effects of Nanotechnology (ICEN). Membership would not be limited to OECD countries and should include UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) and WHO (World Health Organization). The council would have three major functions: 1) sharing and disseminating information on the health and environmental effects of nanotechnology; 2) making non-binding recommendations for government actions to manage nanotechnology’s effects; and 3) evaluating the actions taken by member states to address the effects of nanotechnology. The last function would be analogous to OECD’s evaluations of national environmental programs.

The current international mechanisms for dealing with environmental and technological problems are a crazy-quilt of small, mostly inadequate, institutions and staffs. An international coordinating body for nanotechnology could be just an interim step. At some point, the need for a single strong international body to manage all of the environmental treaties, agreements and understandings will become imperative. The need to deal internationally with nanotechnology will add one more reason for nations to create such a body.

Foresight Capability

The U.S. EPA, the National Research Council (NRC) and others have called for the development of an improved technology forecasting ability to identify potential environmental impacts of emerging technologies, to interact with business in the early stages of technology development to help design out negative impacts, and to support environmentally positive applications.

There has been a long, on-going debate about the ability to do forecasting. If the goal is accurate prediction of the future, then most forecasting is doomed to failure. However, thinking about the future allows one to consider likely options, identify important determinants of the future of a technology, and get a jump on creating relevant policies. The rapid pace of nanotechnology makes improved foresight capability a necessity.

Several kinds of initiatives are needed. First, EPA and other agencies should establish offices explicitly charged with forecasting - and with encouraging their agency to use forecast results. Second, NSF, EPA and others should fund academic centers dedicated to research that will improve forecasting ability. A lot of research on how to improve forecasting is needed, but forecasting is inherently interdisciplinary, and for this and other reasons, it has been almost entirely neglected by academics. The availability of funding for research - and the existence of institutions that would use the results - would help remedy this neglect. As the NRC has said, many reasons exist to motivate forecasting activities.

Among them is the desire to increase the lead time for making decisions in order to allow more careful analysis of various options, and to increase the chance for broad public participation in decision making. In managing nanotechnology’s effects, these reasons are particularly relevant. Congress also needs to have the ability to foresee and evaluate new technological developments.

In 1995, the Republican Congress eliminated the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), the only effective institution it had for fulfilling these tasks. It eliminated OTA as a budget-cutting measure, although the total OTA budget was a modest $22 million. Rebuilding Congress’ foresight capability is essential if the legislature is to operate effectively in the modern world.


The role of research in encouraging environmentally beneficial nanotechnology has been discussed. However, there is also a need for research focusing on adverse effects of nanotechnology, monitoring instruments, and control methods to prevent adverse effects. Much of the research on effects is either done or paid for by the government. Nanotechnology presents a variety of unique challenges.

It is not clear whether there are good ways to detect nanotechnology materials in the ambient environment, or, if they cannot be detected, whether there are ways environmental controls can be imposed. It is not clear which, if any, of the usual control methods will be effective in dealing with nanotechnology materials. Following these avenues often leads back to the primary importance of prevention. The only way to deal with potential adverse effects of nanotechnology in most cases will be to design the product or tailor the use of the material so that the nanotechnology material does not get into the environment or the human body in the first place. Rejeski has suggested that EPA needs an advanced research capability similar to the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop breakthrough solutions for the “really hard problems”. EPA’s track record with research of this kind is not good, but creation of a new office with incentives to attract outstanding researchers could change this. It will remain a continuing challenge to identify and analyze the adverse effects of nanotechnology.

With government funds,some new institutions at universities already have been established to do research on these effects. Much of the research on effects is cross-disciplinary - a major handicap in enlisting the discipline-oriented universities to undertake the research. It also is a handicap in enlisting individual researchers who may not get academic rewards for working on interdisciplinary, applied problems.

The question of how to create incentives for the private sector to conduct testing and do research on nanotechnology adverse effects is a different kind of institutional challenge. Holding manufacturers responsible for the adverse effects of their products is clearly a major incentive for such testing and research.

There is broad agreement that current government spending to determine the health and safety effects of nanotechnology is inadequate. At a Nov. 17, 2005, hearing before the House Committee on Science, industry, environmental and research organizations called for federal spending of at least $100 million annually – more than three times current expenditures – on health and safety research.

Some witnesses also called for a more actively managed, strategically targeted, and carefully coordinated approach to determine what adverse effects, if any, nanotechnology may create. Recently, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center released a comprehensive inventory of nanotechnology-related environmental, health and safety research.The inventory covered information on 208 research projects, in 6 countries and regions, accounting for $38 million of research annually. 169 projects, accounting for $27 million, were in the United States.

However, within the United States, only $6 million of federal research was considered to be of “high relevance” to determining the environmental, health and safety implications of engineered nanomaterials.

Public Participation

The involvement of members of the general public is crucial for dealing with nanotechnology’s adverse effects in two different ways. First, as the Royal Society states, “some of the social and ethical concerns that certain applications of nanotechnologies are likely to raise stretch well beyond the basic science or engineering of the matter”. Social values, apart from scientific questions, are an inextricable part of assessing risks and the public needs to be involved in assessing nanotechnology’s risks, as well as in defining the measures to be taken to deal with the risks.

The social value questions that nanotechnology is likely to raise transcend the risks of individual technologies or applications. A study comparing the controversy over biotechnology with what might be expected in relation to nanotechnology noted that the issues many people saw as being involved in the biotechnology controversy included “Global drives towards new forms of proprietary knowledge; shifting patterns of ownership and control in the food chain; issues of corporate responsibility and corporate closeness to governments; intensifying relationships of science and scientists to the worlds of power and commerce; unease about hubristic approaches to limits in human understanding; conflicting interpretations of what might be meant by sustainable development…”. As the authors point out, these kinds of concerns cannot be accommodated within a framework of risk assessment of individual nanotechnology products.

The second way the public needs to be involved is as consumers both of information about nanotechnology and of nanotechnology products. The tremendous potential of the technology will not develop without the public having a realistic view of the intended and unintended effects of nanotechnology. In its scope and diversity of applications, nanotechnology often has been compared with biotechnology.

The lessons learned from biotechnology about the consequences of a poorly informed public should not be lost on those dealing with nanotechnology. Some institutions have risen to this challenge. For example, DuPont has joined with the non-governmental organization Environmental Defense to define a process for identifying and reducing potential health, safety and environmental risks of nanoscale materials, and to test the process on specific DuPont materials or applications.

A study by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies showed more trust in regulatory agencies than might have been expected. Almost half the sample believed that EPA, OSHA and other regulatory agencies would effectively manage risks from nanotechnology, while about 40 percent believed the agencies could not be trusted. Of the 177 participants in the study, 55 percent said that voluntary standards applied by industry would not be sufficient to deal with nanotechnology risks. When asked for their top choice of how government and industry could increase public trust, 34 percent selected increased safety tests before products are marketed, and 25 percent chose supplying more information to support informed consumer choices.

New and better institutions for public participation are needed. Going through the motions of a public hearing where nobody listens, or launching a slick public relations campaign will not suffice. The public needs to be educated, not brainwashed. It needs to be seriously listened to, not tolerated. And there needs to be real participation.

New forms of participation are being tried, for example, using the Internet, and nanotechnology provides a good opportunity to use and experiment with these new methods. The challenges presented by nanotechnology are as many and varied as the promises that it holds for a better life. If the new technology is to fulfill its promise, society must openly face the issues of whether the technology has or could have adverse effects, what these effects are, and how to prevent them. I hope that this paper will move that effort forward.

Other Parts

This article has been broken into parts due to its original length. The parts can be found as follows:

Source: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars – Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

For more information on this source please visit Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies


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