A team of professors at Arizona State University, including three faculty members of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, has received a quarter-million-dollar federal grant to pursue their research of nanotechnology regulation.
The two-year, $248,230 award from the Ethical, Legal and Social Issues (ELSI) Program in the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science will enable the researchers to evaluate novel “soft law” mechanisms for oversight of the technology. The grant, “Governing Nanotechnology Risks and Benefits in the Transition to Regulation,” was made to Gary Marchant, Ken Abbott and Doug Sylvester, professors at the College of Law, and Elizabeth Corley, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and co-principal investigator for the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU.
The grant follows a $314,000 federal award that Marchant, Abbott and Sylvester received in 2007 on behalf of the College of Law’s Center for Law, Science & Innovation to develop models for the international regulation of nanotechnology.
Known as the science of the small – the ability to manipulate and utilize materials at the “nanoscale” level where they display unique and beneficial characteristics – nanotechnology is a growing science with big implications for healthy, safety, quality of life and environment concerns. Already, there are hundreds of nanotechnology products on the market, yet the industry is largely unregulated.
“Nanotechnology is involved in a lot of different types of products, such as stain-repellant clothing, highly effective sunscreen lotions and many renewable energy applications,” said Marchant, the ASU Lincoln Professor of Emerging Technologies, Law and Ethics, and Executive Director of the Center for Law, Science & Innovation. “With so many nanotech products coming onto the market, some will undoubtedly create human health problems if not managed properly, potentially jeopardizing the entire nano brand.”
For example, some consumer protection organizations called for a global moratorium on nanotech research and a recall of products that contain nanoparticles, after a household sealant, Magic Nano, was yanked from the market in Germany last spring. The product had caused breathing problems among users, but it was later determined that it contained no nanoparticles.
“One important aspect of the limbo between progression of nanotechnology and awareness and accessibility is the development of nanotechnology regulation in the face of scientific uncertainty about the technology,” Corley said. “When we think about a field like nanotechnology, the science often moves forward very quickly while the discussion of the social, ethical and policy impacts often falls behind. One of the goals of our research is to make sure that as a scientific community we engage in a discussion about the policy implications of nanotechnology at the same time that the science is moving forward.”
As part of the first grant, Marchant, Abbott and Sylvester examined the potential for international harmonization of nanotech regulations and concluded that formal treaties in the foreseeable future were unlikely.
“International negotiations are so intense, and they require a lot of resources, so the issue has to be urgent,” said Marchant, the grant’s principal investigator. “Yet we need to provide assurances to the public that this is being looked at, even though it may take a long time for formal regulation to be implemented.”
Thus, the researchers will use the follow-on grant to bring cutting-edge analysis of innovative governance mechanisms to this rapidly-developing technology, Abbott said.
“New mechanisms are increasingly used, both domestically and transnationally, to provide regulatory oversight on environmental, commercial and social issues,” he said. “Our research will focus on ‘governance’ mechanisms, in which industry groups, non-governmental organizations and other private actors play important roles, and on “soft law,” in which some mandatory requirements are replaced by voluntary norms.”
Examples include a code of conduct that may be adopted by an individual firm or group of stakeholders, and the establishment of a network of national regulatory agencies, which can adopt recommendations for addressing health, safety and other risks and coordinate national actions.
“Mechanisms like these can be adopted more easily than binding legal requirements, are highly flexible, and allow for direct participation by concerned parties,” Abbott said. “They are especially useful as interim measures in situations where the appropriate form and level of regulation is not yet clear, as with nanotechnology.”
The team also will continue to expand a public online database of proposed and enacted regulatory requirements and programs that are specific to nanotechnology at the international, national and sub-national levels. The Nanotech Regulatory Document Archive (nanotech.law.asu.edu) was created as part of the first grant, and now has more than 300 government regulatory documents from more than 20 national jurisdictions.
“In addition to looking more closely at governance structures, this new grant will allow us to continue to operate and update the world’s most comprehensive website on nanotechnology regulations,” Sylvester said. “This website catalogs every regulatory action taken to analyze or control this emerging technology, and this new grant provides funding for us to continue to make it available to the public and to seek input from regulators and experts around the world on new and emerging regulations in the area.”