May 12, 2012

Talking Technology!


 It's Alfred E. Neuman's world, we just live in it.

A reminder of this fact emerged from some recent readings on nanotechnology.

Every so often a report comes out from one august group or another that we really do need to think more about nanotech's potential hazards, which range from the carcinogenic to the apocalyptic. These suggestions tend to disappear amidst the blizzard of announcements issued daily from nanotech laboratories around the world regarding the latest world-changing applications they've developed. Less often a report appears documenting that nanomaterials have been found to effect human health or the environment in some unexpected fashion.

In other words, the gold rush continues while the various bodies responsible for seeing that the enterprise doesn't go disastrously awry fret that maybe we haven't yet gotten a handle on it. The mainstream press barely notices.

Case in point: The most recent assessment of U.S. progress on nanotechnology development, released on April 27 by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The Council's job is to review, biannually, the work of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NNI is responsible for coordinating the activities of 15 federal agencies that distribute government money for nanotech research and development. So far some $18 billion has been handed out in order to promote, as the Council of Advisors put it, "rapid advancement of nanoscience and technology toward commercialization."

Four years ago, the National Academies of Science unleashed a blistering attack on the NNI, accusing it of failing to adequately investigate whether the nano technologies it was backing posed significant threats to public health and safety. The Academies repeated those criticisms, less harshly, last January, in the process issuing their own proposal for a "research and a scientific infrastructure" that would provide the necessary oversight.

It's clear that the NNI hasn't ignored the tongue-lashing it received from the National Academies. According to the Council of Advisors report, NNI funding for health and safety research has increased from $35 million in 2005 to the $105 million requested for fiscal year 2013. This increase was "appropriate, even necessary,"  the Council says, to correct a "significant imbalance" between research directed toward new applications versus research directed toward assessing and preventing risk.

Nonetheless, the Council's assessment also says it is "concerned" that the NNI's 2013 request for research on health and safety represents only a "modest" increase over the $103 million budgeted for 2012. The Council adds that, in any case, whatever information has been collected on the safety of nanotechnology materials isn't getting to the policy makers responsible for managing potential risks.

What the Council's report doesn't mention is that the $103 million allocated by the NNI for health and safety research in 2012 represents slightly less than 6 per cent of its total budget.

Oh, and the press? Google and individual site searches turn up no mention whatsoever of the Council of Advisors report in any national news organ, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Los Angeles Times. Not surprisingly, survey results suggest the public hasn't registered any particular concern about nano tech, either. 

Perhaps in an effort to underscore that it's on the case, the report of the President's Council of Advisors carries an appendix dedicated to "Nanotechnology-Related Environment, Health, and Safety Research." Again, though, what it says, in essence, is that we really should be getting a handle on this thing before it blows up in our faces.

"As new modes of manufacturing are developed and explored," the appendix begins,

the need to address occupational health and safety issues will take on even greater urgency. Efforts to address workplace safety issues are limited by the lack of research, lack of rigorous information about the identity and demographics of the workforce, and by current practices and attitudes of employers towards workplace risk issues.

A recent survey on these issues found, the appendix says, that 59 percent of American nanotechnology companies have ignored government recommendations to monitor their workplaces for nanoparticles. By that I assume it means stray nanoparticles escaping whatever controlled environment they're meant to be contained in. The same survey "revealed a number of other attitudes and practices that demonstrate little progress since the publication of an earlier industry survey performed in 2007."

Given the lack of precautions being exercised by those actively engaged in developing nano technologies, the President's Council suggests it's "critical" that appropriate federal agencies "engage" with companies to "increase their awareness of and ability to use the latest knowledge and guidance being generated on this topic." And how should this engagement proceed? In a "non-regulatory capacity," of course!

That the President's advisors would go out of their way to specify that whatever official oversight is exercised in pursuit of nano tech safety should be conducted in a "non-regulatory capacity" tells you that industry has a free hand, pretty much, to explore and exploit nano tech as it sees fit. Willingly or not, we'll all be going along for the ride. 

©Doug Hill, 2012

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