Mostly positive findings on the National Nanotechnology Institute suggest safety and measuring economic returns as areas for improvement
By Kerry Grens | September 26, 2006
A new report from the National Research Council's Committee to Review the National Nanotechnology Initiative delivers a mostly positive review of the initiative's progress in overseeing the government's role in developing nanotechnologies. However, the report also points to places where improvement would be possible, including determining the potential safety risks associated with nanomaterials and tracking economic returns on federal funding.
The committee's first triennial review, requested by Congress, praised the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) for its efforts in coordinating nanotechnology research and development across government agencies.
However, the report calls for expanding research funds to establish safety standards for workers, consumers, and the environment. "The body of published research addressing the toxicological and environmental effects of engineered nanomaterials is still relatively small," the report states.
Committee chair James Williams, a professor at Ohio State University, said, "There is some concern that the effort nationally?I don't know whether it's fair to map that onto the NNI?is a little slow in getting started on the possible health consequences of nanomaterials in the workplace."
E. Clayton Teague, director of the federal National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, agrees with the committee's recommendations. "Certainly, research funding has been growing," Teague said in an interview with The Scientist. He pointed out that the federal budget for environment, health, and safety research regarding nanotechnology will expand from $38 million in 2005 to $44 million in 2007.
Teague said that, overall, the recommendations in the review "are parallel to the directions we have been thinking about and moving in directly."
For example, the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee (NSET) of the National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Technology released a report last week detailing areas of research necessary to understand environmental, health, and safety issues surrounding nanotechnology. Teague said his group is committed to filling those research needs.
"It's gratifying that they do recognize the need for further research and the need to underpin safe nanotechnologies," Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said in an interview with The Scientist.
However, Maynard called the NSET's report a "shopping list" and said that the committee's review of the NNI did not go as far as it could in laying out precisely what research will establish safety standards for nanotechnology and how to get it done quickly.
"In the short term, this is such a critical issue that we need to move fast," Maynard said.
Other areas of improvement the committee highlighted include the need for the NNI to work toward a better system for keeping track of financial data. The review found a "dearth of data" on federal budget requests, investments, authorizations, and expenditures, making it impossible to link federal funding to measures of progress.
Williams is confident the NNI will be able to meet more of its goals as the program matures. "Nanotechnology is still in its infancy, and doing things like measuring economic impact, it's just too early," he said.
He told The Scientist that, overall, the institute's work thus far has been a success. "The (NNI's) ability to produce a cohesive, coordinated program amongst so many federal agencies is as well as it's ever been done," he said.
Links within this article:
National Research Council
National Nanotechnology Initiative
"Time to Regulate Nanoparticle Safety?" The Scientist, Aug. 1, 2005
A Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative
E. Clayton Teague
Environmental, Health, and Safety Research Needs for Engineered Nanoscale Materials