Management and Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology Examined

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Publication date: 
19 January 2006

A new report concludes that while the potential benefits of nanotechnology are "almost limitless," little is known about its possible harmful effects, and the benefits will be realized only if adverse consequences "are examined and managed." The January 2006 report, entitled "Managing the Effects of Nanotechnology," was released by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts (see It finds that while strong government management and oversight is needed, existing laws and regulations suffer from major shortcomings and would be difficult to adapt to the production and use of nanotechnologies (NT). The report offers suggestions for management mechanisms, institutional capabilities, and regulatory authority, but acknowledges the political obstacles in the way of new or enhanced regulation. This report follows a September 2005 survey of public attitudes toward NT, also from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, which found that respondents knew little about NT, questioned the commitment of government and industry to public safety, and wanted more knowledge available to consumers.

Many voices in Congress and industry have been touting the potentially dramatic consumer and health benefits that could result from the emerging field of NT. But it is widely recognized that not enough is yet known about the possible environmental, health, and safety (EHS) concerns arising from such novel materials, and that public fears about real or imagined risks could stall broad acceptance and limit the beneficial uses of the technology. Past examples of public perceptions limiting the widespread utilization of technologies such as genetically-modified organisms and nuclear power are often cited as precautionary tales. To address public concerns, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), the multi-agency federal program to foster NT development, includes funding for research into possible EHS impacts. (Of the Bush Administration's $1.1 billion FY 2006 request for NNI, about $38.5 million, or 4 percent, would go toward EHS research.) However, at a November hearing of the House Science Committee, several private-sector witnesses called that amount inadequate.

"What is clear is the commercialization of the technology is outpacing the development of . . . policies to assess and guard against adverse environmental, health and safety consequences," declared Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) at the November 17 hearing. Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) noted the "remarkable unity" among nongovernmental witnesses that more investment is needed into EHS research. But with substantial new funding unlikely, witnesses were less unified when pressed on how much funding was the right amount and how funds should be reprogrammed. Richard Denison of Environmental Defense suggested "at least $100 million annually for at least the next several years," while Clayton Teague of the NNI Coordination Office countered that the current amount was adequate, given the funding available. David Rejeski of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies stated that the NNI was doing "a fairly good job" in some areas of research but that "large gaps" existed in other areas. Denison questioned whether EHS research funding was being apportioned to the most appropriate agencies and areas of research. To avoid slowing the pace of commercialization, businesses need a solid base of EHS data and greater clarity about how federal agencies will approach the regulation of NT, testified Matthew Nordan of Lux Research Inc. "No regulatory agency that we're aware of," he stated, "has articulated a clear and unambiguous plan for how it will approach" nanotechnology regulation.

The January 2006 report addresses possible approaches to the management and regulation of NT and the shortcomings in current regulatory options. "The basic reason that it makes sense to regulate NT as a separate category is that NT materials behave differently from conventional materials" and their behavior cannot be predicted from the starting chemicals, it explains. Management of this emerging field, the report says, must take into account three aspects: defining the field, the rapid pace of development, and possible adverse effects. The very definition of what comprises nanotechnology is subject to "confusion and controversy," it says, and the way it is defined for regulation will impact "what is regulated, how it is regulated, and how well a regulatory program works." The report cautions that with the field's rapid progress, delays caused by government regulation could be costly to industry, especially to small firms. It also warns that information about possible harmful effects is likely to "lag behind commercial applications." However, according to the report, even the early, fragmentary data available on adverse consequences "is enough to show that there are potential or actual effects that warrant concern."

The report reviews existing regulatory authorities, and identifies flaws and weaknesses with respect to regulating the field of NT. It also looks at ways existing regulations could be coordinated, amended and strengthened, describes the challenges to doing so, and points out what shortcomings would still remain. It further notes that many regulatory authorities "do not have the resources necessary to fulfill their legal obligations." While acknowledging that enactment of a new law to regulate NT would be nearly impossible in today's political climate, the report nevertheless concludes that it might be "easier, politically and substantively, to draft and enact a new law" than to try to adapt existing ones. The report provides suggestions on what a law specifically tailored for NT regulation might look like. It also discusses voluntary programs for regulating NT and possible incentives to encourage industry compliance.

An earlier study from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, entitled "Informed Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government" (September 2005), surveyed public attitudes toward NT, asking questions before and after providing participants with brief information on NT and the relevant U.S. regulatory and policy-making bodies. It found that the majority of participants initially knew almost nothing about NT and doubted that Congress and the White House could be trusted to protect public safety. After the briefing, half the participants felt generally positive about NT. The majority felt that voluntary industry standards would be insufficient to regulate NT but believed that banning NT would be "overreacting." Opinions on the trustworthiness of federal regulatory agencies varied. There was strong agreement on several ways to increase public trust, including increased safety testing before products reach the market, and providing more information to consumers. The most important message of the survey, its author points out, "is that a lack of information . . . breeds public mistrust and suspicion."

Both reports are available on the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies site at The January 2006 report, "Managing the Effects of Nanotechnology," can be found under the heading "Getting Nanotech Right: A New Report on Government Oversight of Nanotechnology." To find the September 2005 report, "Informed Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government," click on "Reports, Papers and Presentations."

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