Nanotechnology study focuses on health risks

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 14, 2006 11:35 am    Post subject: Nanotechnology study focuses on health risks Reply with quote

Nanotechnology study focuses on health risks
by Barnaby J. Feder of The New York Times

The United States continues to lead the world in nanotechnology research, but the influence of the government's multibillion-dollar investment in the field may take decades to become apparent, according to an assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative done for Congress.

But the report cautioned that too little money was being invested in understanding the potential health and environmental risks of manipulating matter on such a small scale.

Nanotechnology refers to a rapidly expanding range of devices and industrial processes that manipulate atoms and small clusters of molecules - materials measuring from one to 100 nanometers, or billionths of a meter.

At such dimensions, traditional materials can develop valuable behaviors, like unusual strength, electrical conductivity or invisibility to the naked eye and can be recombined with other materials to form novel drugs, foods and devices.

It is assumed that nanotechnology will have a huge economic effect in the decades to come. But there is also concern that the novel materials will bring new safety risks that could take decades to be fully understood.

The National Research Council's hopeful but guarded analysis fulfilled a requirement spelled out in a 2003 law that the initiative be reviewed every three years.

It concluded that coordination among the many arms of government involved in nanotechnology had improved since the adoption of the law, which transformed the research begun under President Bill Clinton into a permanent program with an annual budget of more than $1 billion.

The Research Council report said that because nanotechnology was a foundation technology that makes other innovations possible, the research spending could logically be compared with early investments in computing and communications technology, whose influence took 20 to 40 years to become apparent.

But the report warned that, as things stand now, the government had neither enough consistency in the way investments were classified and tracked nor the management structure needed to accurately assess the value of what it was getting for its nanotechnology spending.

It said the 50-member panel of public and private nanotechnology experts set up to advise the government's technology managers was too broad and too busy elsewhere to provide much help in setting priorities and should be replaced with a smaller, more dedicated group.

The report also urged the program's managers to enlist the Labor and Education Departments in a more coordinated effort to get students and workers the training needed to cope with nanotechnology, bridging disciplines like biology, physics, and materials engineering.

The finding that safety research is underfunded echoed a report last week by a panel of experts assigned by President George W. Bush's National Science and Technology Council.

In testimony on that report Thursday before the House Science Committee, some experts said that the less than $40 million being spent annually on such research was too little.

They also said scientists at each agency were selecting their own projects without much central direction.

But, in a reflection of the challenges ahead, the director of the National Science Foundation, Arden Bement Jr., told the committee that attempts to centrally dictate research priorities might not work as well as some people have expected.

"I have to tell you that this area is so complex that I don't know of any person or a small group of people who would be smart enough to be able to identify all the risks, set the priorities and lay out a so-called game plan," Bement said


This story was first posted on 27th September 2006.
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