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Responsible Nanotechnology

Scientists set five grand challenges to guide nascent field

by Susan R. Morrissey
November 20, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 47

Credit: Susan Morrissey/C&EN
Boehlert (right) and Gordon welcome direction in nanotech risk research.
Credit: Susan Morrissey/C&EN
Boehlert (right) and Gordon welcome direction in nanotech risk research.

Five grand challenges to stimulate research on the potential risks of engineered nanomaterials have been identified by a group of 14 scientists (Nature 2006, 444, 267). They reflect growing concern that, with more than 300 nanomaterial products on the market, understanding of the environmental, health, and safety impacts of nanotechnology has not kept pace.

According to lead author Andrew D. Maynard, the time to understand the impacts of engineered nanomaterials and to minimize the health risks from exposure is running out. Maynard is the chief science adviser for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "If the public loses confidence in the commitment of government, business, and the science community to conduct sound and systematic research into possible risk, then the enormous potential of nanotechnology will be squandered," he says.

The five challenges outlined in the paper include developing instruments to evaluate exposure of nanomaterials to air and water, methods to study the toxicity of nanomaterials, models to predict the potential impact of the new materials, systems to assess nanomaterials' entire life cycle, and a strategic plan to enable risk-focused research. The authors also assign timelines for these challenges, ranging from 12 months for the development of a strategic plan to 15 years for the development of alternatives to in vivo toxicity testing.

The paper was praised by House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.).

"At our most recent Science Committee hearing on this subject in September, both of us made clear that we felt the Administration was moving too slowly with preparing and funding a research agenda in this area, when a sense of urgency was needed," the two congressmen say in a joint statement. They note that the Bush Administration along with key federal agencies should now be able to "quickly put together a plan and a budget to implement the recommendations in the Nature paper as part of the fiscal 2008 budget."


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