Gordon: Nanotech initiative should be more transparent

The five-year-old effort should pay more attention to environmental, health and safety research.

The federal government's $1.5 billion nanotechnology initiative should pay more attention to environmental, health and safety research and describe its work more clearly to the public to avoid the kind of backlash experienced in debates over nuclear power, genetically modified foods, and stem-cell therapies, according to House Science Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Gordon spoke Wednesday as his panel was considering a draft reauthorization bill to allocate 10 percent of the National Nanotechnology Initiative's research budget to environmental issues, health and safety.

The NNI's potential downsides should "be addressed from the beginning in a straightforward and open way," Gordon said.

The five-year-old effort, which is funded by 13 agencies, has acknowledged the importance of risk-reduction activities, but it also "has been slow to put in place a well-designed, adequately funded and effectively executed research program," according to Gordon.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., said he was pleased the draft would elevate the "EHS" component but added that policies should allow for that research to be embedded into product development. "We know that each nano-product and process may behave differently, and therefore independent EHS research may not always inform a seemingly parallel project," he said.

The proposed 10 percent set-aside has critics.

Floyd Kvamme, co-chairman of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, said the figure is problematic. Scientifically determined, strategically planned priorities -- rather than arbitrary percentages -- should guide nanotechnology funding, including for safety research, he told the panel. He added that nano-related EHS research has doubled since 2005 and that as industry picks up more applications, the government's role will change.

NanoBusiness Alliance executive director Sean Murdock said his group supports the reauthorization effort and believes the 10 percent allocation is reasonable.

Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser for the Woodrow Wilson Center's Project on Emergency Nanotechnologies, agreed, saying that "any less would risk compromising the success of nanotechnology."

Maynard also called for the establishment of a top-level framework that identifies goals of nanotechnology risk research across agencies. He also said public-private partnerships should be leveraged to address oversight issues in an independent, transparent and timely manner. "Without transparency, there is no clear foundation for establishing strategic planning," he said.