To "maximize the potential and minimize the risks" of nanotechnology, DuPont CEO Chad Holliday and Environmental Defense (ED) President Fred Krupp are calling for "increased risk research, improved regulatory oversight, proactive corporate management standards, and broad stakeholder engagement."
Given potential liability and market risks, industry, universities, government and public interest groups should collaborate to determine what testing is necessary for new nanoproducts. Businesses then should conduct the needed testing before new products enter commercial use. . . A collaborative effort could set interim standards for nanotechnology around the world while regulations are under development.
At the same time, our government also needs to invest more seriously in the research necessary to understand fully nanoparticle behavior. Funding to study health and environmental risk represents only 4% of the proposed federal investment in nanotechnology and becomes vanishingly small when you factor in private investment. Government spending on nanotechnology should be reprioritized so that approximately 10% goes to this purpose. Compared to the estimated $1 trillion market for nanotechnology, this would be a wise insurance policy on such a high-potential investment.
Also this week, a study released by investment advisory firm Lux Research concludes that nanotechnology is "not being properly evaluated for human and environmental risks."
[W]ithout a full and continuing assessment of those risks, the nascent industry expected to employ thousands of people and generate billions of dollars in revenue may be hobbled by public opposition or corporate mishaps.
Lux forecasts an even higher upside than DuPont and Environmental Defense, saying that various nanotechnologies could produce $8 trillion in cumulative manufacturing output through 2014.
It's good to see that big business, big investment advisors, and big environmental groups are starting to pay attention to the need for study of health and environmental risks. Of course, with so much money at stake, it's no surprise.
So, if the U.S. and other governments were to earmark 10% of their nanotech funding for environmental, health and safety (EHS) risks, would that be enough? Would it satisfy CRN's concerns?
Not even close.
Unfortunately, that will not take us even halfway to where we need to go. At least two separate sets of studies are needed.
What is being proposed would cover only half of the important kinds of nanotechnology. Lux, DuPont, ED, and others are right in calling for more research into the EHS risks of nanoscale technologies; nanoparticle toxicity, etc., needs to be studied and understood. But far more serious dangers, and far greater potential benefits, will arise from the other major branch of nanotechnology: molecular manufacturing.
Because of the largely unexpected transformational power of molecular manufacturing, it is urgent to understand the issues raised. To date, there has not been anything approaching an adequate study of these matters. The societal and environmental implications of molecular manufacturing (programmable, integrated, exponential molecular machine systems) are profound -- and they are also poorly understood.
CRN has outlined a series of thirty essential studies that, if conducted, will begin to answer many crucial questions. This process may take us halfway to where we need to go. But even if we find good answers and workable solutions for safe and responsible use of advanced nanotechnology, they still would have to be implemented, probably on a global basis.
If molecular manufacturing takes the world by surprise, we will not have systems in place to deal with it effectively. No single organization or mindset can create a full and appropriate policy -- and inappropriate policy will only make things worse. A combination of separate policy efforts will get in each other's way, and the risks will slip through the cracks.
By the time this technological capability arrives, we must have accomplished several things that each will take significant time. First, we must understand the risks. Second, make policy. Third, design institutions. Fourth, create the institutions -- at all levels including international levels, where things move slowly. This could easily take twenty years. If advanced nanotechnology could arrive in ten or fifteen years, then we'd better get to work.