National Nanotechnology Initiative Needs Fundamental Restructuring to Effectively Address Nano Risks

October 31, 2007
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:
Julie Huddleston, jhuddleston@environmentaldefense.org, 202-572-3369

(Washington, DC – October 31, 2007) The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has been ineffective in addressing the potential risks of nanotechnology and needs fundamental restructuring. That assessment was provided today by Environmental Defense in testimony at a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee.

“NNI and its member agencies have been assigned the conflicting roles of advancing nanotechnology and addressing its potential risks – with insufficient attention paid to the problems inherent in this dual mission,” said Environmental Defense Senior Scientist Dr. Richard A. Denison. “The result has been a persistent imbalance in the federal effort that favors promotion over prudence.”

In his testimony, Denison cited several major shortcomings in the federal effort: “Too little is being spent on risk research, too little is known about what current funds are being spent on, and NNI has yet to produce – let alone show it can implement – a coherent risk research strategy,” continued Denison. NNI’s own figures indicate that spending on direct risk research remains at 3-4% of the total federal nanotechnology R&D budget, despite calls from all sectors to substantially increase that amount. Even those figures have been questioned, however, because NNI includes an unknown amount of funds spent on research to develop nanotechnology applications, where it deems the research to be “relevant” to answer risk questions. “While some of this research may be legitimately counted, the inability or unwillingness of NNI to compile and publicly release a full list and description of funded research projects makes the budget issue a big black box,” said Denison.

Environmental Defense offered two main recommendations:

First, a new entity needs to be created (or an existing entity elevated), assigned a core mission of protecting health and the environment, and given cross-agency budgetary and oversight authority both to implement a federal risk research strategy and to address any risks that are identified. The National Academies should assist in developing the strategy, and in overseeing its implementation over a number of years.

Second, a firewall should be built between the parts of the federal government whose mission is to help develop and advance nanotechnology, and those parts charged with addressing its potential risks. Different offices, both within NNI and its member agencies, should be assigned these distinct roles and given comparable authority and sufficient resources.

“In sum, the activities within NNI devoted to identifying and mitigating the potential risks of nanotechnology need to be both substantially elevated in importance and clearly separated from those dedicated to promoting its development and application,” said Denison.

Denison emphasized that Environmental Defense continues to believe that nanotechnology promises major health and environmental benefits. But implementation of a robust process to identify and address the potential risks of engineered nanomaterials is absolutely essential to ensuring that these benefits are in fact realized. A concurrent and balanced approach to addressing both applications and implications of nanotechnology is the best hope for achieving the responsible development of nanotechnology.

Environmental Defense’s testimony is at www.environmentaldefense.org/NNIrecs.

Environmental Defense has been working since 2003 to ensure that the potential risks of nanoscale materials are identified and mitigated. The organization has advocated for more federal funding for health and environmental risk research as well as for adoption of protective regulations addressing nanomaterials and nanoproducts. Environmental Defense is the only U.S. environmental NGO active at the international level in efforts to address nanoscale material risks. For more information, see www.environmentaldefense.org/nano.