Oversight of Next Generation Nanotechnology

Oversight of Next Generation Nanotechnology


For the first time in human history, we are close to being able to manipulate the basic forms of all things, living and inanimate, take them apart and put them together in almost any way the mind can imagine. The sophistication with which scientists are learning to engineer matter at the nanometer scale is giving us unprecedented mastery of a large part of our environment. The world of the future will be defined by how we use this mastery.

In contrast to the sweeping and dramatic possibilities of new technologies, the government agencies responsible for protecting the public from the adverse effects of these technologies seem worn and tattered. After almost 30 years of systematic neglect, the capability of federal health and safety regulatory agencies ranges from very weak to useless. The focus of regulatory reform in this period has mostly been on how to get around the existing regulatory structure rather than on how to improve it. The regulatory system was designed to deal with the technologies of the industrial age. A large gap exists between the capabilities of the regulatory system and the characteristics of what some are calling the next industrial revolution, and that gap is likely to widen as the new technologies advance.

Nanotechnology involves working at thescale of single atoms and molecules. The U.S. government defines nanotechnology as “the way discoveries made at the nanoscale are put to work” (www.nano.gov; accessed 9/19/08). The nanoscale is roughly 1–100 nanometers. For comparison, the paper on which this is printed is more than 100,000 nanometers thick. There are 25.4 million nanometers in an inch and 10 million nanometers in a centimeter.

Nanoscale materials often behave differently than materials with a larger structure do, even when the basic material (e.g., silver or carbon) is the same. Nanomaterials can have different chemical, physical, electrical and biological characteristics. For example, an aluminum can is perfectly safe, but nano-sized aluminum is highly explosive and can be used to make bombs.

The novel characteristics of nanomaterials mean that risk assessments developed for ordinary materials may be of limited use in determining the health and environmental risks of the products of nanotechnology. While there are no documented cases of  harm attributable specifically to a nanomaterial, a growing body of evidence points to the potential for unusual health and environmental risks (Oberdorster 2007; Maynard 2006). This is not surprising. Nanometer-scale particles can get to places in the environment and the human body that are inaccessible to larger particles, and as a consequence, unusual and unexpected exposures can occur. Nanomaterials have a much larger ratio of surface area to mass than ordinary materials do. It is at the surface of materials that biological and chemical reactions take place, and so we would expect nanomaterials to be more reactive than bulk materials. Novel exposure routes and greater reactivity can be useful attributes, but they also mean greater potential for health and environmental risk.

Oversight consists of obtaining risk information and acting on it to prevent health and environmental damage. An underlying premise of this paper is that adequate oversight of nanotechnology is necessary not only to prevent damage but also to promote the development of the technology. The United States and Europe have learned that oversight and regulation are necessary for the proper functioning of markets and for public acceptance of new technologies.

The application of current oversight systems to current forms of nanotechnology has been analyzed for both the United States and Europe (see, for example, Davies 2006; Davies 2007; Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering 2004). The existing oversight systems in the United States have been found to be largely inadequate to deal with current nanotechnology (Davies 2006, 2007, 2008; Taylor 2006, 2008; Felcher 2008; Breggin and Pendergrass 2007; Schultz and Barclay 2009). This paper looks at future generations of nanotechnology. Not surprisingly, it finds that they will present even greater oversight challenges than the current technology. And nothing less than a completely new system will suffice to deal with the next generations of nanotechnology.

The paper begins with an examination of the future of nanotechnology. It then analyzes the capacity of current oversight policies and authorities to deal with the anticipated technological developments. Concluding that the existing systems are inadequate, the major art of the paper is devoted to thinking about a more adequate oversight system for new technologies in general and for nanotechnology in particular. Failure to think about new forms of oversight perpetuates the status quo and, in the long run, invites negative effects that could undermine the promise of the new century's technologies.

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