01 November 2007 16:06 [Source: ICIS news]
By Joe Kamalick
WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--It is not often that industry and academia combine to call for increased government regulation, but chemical business and chemistry research leaders are begging and pleading for federal oversight in nanotech development.
Chemical sector leaders and research scientists were on Capitol Hill this week, essentially asking the federal government to get the lead out of its pants and move forward with all deliberate speed to organise a massive government and private sector research project on the environmental, health and safety (EHS) aspects of nanotechnology development and commercialisation.
A large and unwieldy multi-agency federal task force, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), is some 18 months behind schedule on what should be an overall federal game plan to set priorities, funding and direction for environmental and safety research in the nanotechnology field.
Without a clear federal plan for how government agencies will monitor and regulate the still unknown risks in nanotech research and development (R&D) and commercialization, many in academia, business and investment communities are reluctant to press forward with their work.
Few are willing to commit millions of dollars to a nanotech research project or a commercialisation plan only to get an urgent and commanding call from one or more of a dozen federal enforcement agences months or years later saying: “Stop! Your nanoproduct is a risk to the environment!”
Actually, some are pressing ahead with research and product development. Representative Brian Baird (Democrat-Washington), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Research & Science Education, noted at a committee hearing this week that there are already nearly 600 nanotech-based medical, cosmetic, electronic and automotive products on the market.
Both scientists and business want to know what the prohibitions and no-go areas are first, before they commit resources and funds. The fact that some in industry are charging forward without clear environmental, health and safety guidelines from ?xml:namespace>
Chemicals business and academic leaders warned the committee that federal government failure to coordinate environmental research on nanomaterials development may delay promising scientific advances.
They complained that NNI is not moving fast enough to set a comprehensive strategy for worker safety, human health and environmental research in the broad nanotech field.
The NNI is made up of representatives of 26 federal agencies and is supposed to coordinate research and oversight by those various government offices in nanoscale science, engineering and technology.
A committee composed of 26 federal agencies? Is there any wonder that work is 18 months behind schedule?
Vicki Colvin, a chemical engineering professor and executive director of the International Council on Nanotechnology, told the committee that “innovation in nanotechnology is being threatened by the uncertainty about its risks and how government will manage them”.
Colvin, who teaches at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and also directs the centre for environmental nanotechnology there, said delays in federal policymaking on how to regulate and control nanotech research and development (R&D) and commercialization puts at risk potential breakthroughs in a wide range of sciences.
“Nanotechnologies offer new approaches to treating cancer and cleaning water and may enable energy independence for our country,” Colvin said. “But fewer of these transformative technologies will make it into commerce if the technology transfer pipeline becomes clogged by concerns about nanoproduct safety.”
Paul Ziegler, chairman of the nanotechnology panel at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), said that federal government support for a comprehensive environmental, health and safety research agenda “is essential to the sustained and responsible development of nanotechnology”.
Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor at the Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies, didn’t pull any punches: “The overall federal government response to identifying and managing nanotechnology risks can only be described as slow, badly conceptualised, poorly directed, uncoordinated and under funded.”
Congressman Baird weighed in as well, saying that NNI’s “EHS research component has not been well planned and executed”.
Baird noted that an NNI memo on nanotech environmental research priorities is more than a year past due. “This is simply not an acceptable situation,” he said.
“I am genuinely puzzled why more progress has not been made to develop this research strategy and plan that everyone believes is necessary for the successful development of nanotechnology,” Baird added. He asked for suggestions on how to accelerate the process.
Speaking for 17 US and multinational chemical majors on the ACC’s nanotech panel, Ziegler suggested that the task of drawing up nanotech environmental research priorities and planning be transferred from the multi-agency NNI to a single entity, the National Academy of Sciences’ board of environmental studies and toxicology (BEST).
The House committee is to take up legislation to reauthorize NNI, and Baird indicated that bill likely will include measures to advance federal guidelines on nanotech environmental issues.
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