Congress Addresses Nanotechnology | June 23, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 25 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 25 | p. 26
Issue Date: June 23, 2008

Congress Addresses Nanotechnology

Bill reauthorizes federal initiative to monitor and guide R&D in emerging area
Department: Government & Policy
News Channels: Nano SCENE
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SAFER NANOTECH
Legislation working its way through Congress could set the stage for testing the environmental, health, and safety effects of nanotech products like the gold-polymer nanorods shown here.
Credit: Chad Mirkin/Northwestern University
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SAFER NANOTECH
Legislation working its way through Congress could set the stage for testing the environmental, health, and safety effects of nanotech products like the gold-polymer nanorods shown here.
Credit: Chad Mirkin/Northwestern University

ESTABLISHED IN 2001, the National Nanotechnology Initiative coordinates federal research and development. Over the past years, NNI has tried to keep pace with the growing field of nanotechnology, but it has struggled to set up a strategy to guide R&D and, specifically, to ensure that key environmental, health, and safety (EHS) research is being done.

To help NNI better manage its responsibilities, Congress is reevaluating and revising the law that governs it. On June 5, by an overwhelming vote of 407 to 6, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 5940, the National Nanotechnology Initiative Amendments Act of 2008. Industry and environmental groups alike praised the bill, which emphasizes the need for EHS research.

H.R. 5940 modifies the 21st Century Nanotechnology R&D Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in December 2003. "The federal interagency nanotechnology research program has not yet put in place a well-designed, adequately funded, and effectively executed research program focused on the environmental and safety aspects of nanotechnology," said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science & Technology Committee, who introduced the bill. "H.R. 5940 addresses this deficiency by requiring that a research plan, with detailed objectives and funding targets, be developed and quickly implemented," he added.

The bill tackles several issues that have been raised over the past few years and "sets the scene for developing not only commercially successful but also safe and sustainable nanotechnologies," says Andrew D. Maynard, chief science adviser for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. Maynard is a member of C&EN's editorial advisory board.

For example, the legislation would create a public database of nanotech EHS research conducted by all of the 25 federal agencies involved in NNI. Currently, the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office gathers such information, but reliability of the dataset is less than clear.

"Every year, the NNCO estimates how much of the NNI budget is going to EHS-related projects," says Richard A. Denison, a senior scientist with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund. The estimates are controversial because the coordination office rarely releases specific information about the funding of projects, and it tends to count projects that most experts outside NNI would consider tangentially related to EHS at best, he notes. "Rather than continue to have this game played every year, this database would go far in helping to ensure a public record."

For fiscal 2006, NNI estimated that $37.7 million, or 3% of the total NNI budget, went toward EHS research. The Government Accountability Office, however, reported that 20% of that research was not actually EHS research (defined as research on the environmental and health effects of nanotech products), but rather included projects like developing nanotechnology for environmental remediation, water purification, and solar power applications. "A lot of the figures that have been batted around have been developed for promotional purposes rather than analysis purposes," Maynard says. "They reflect the government in a good light, but they don't necessarily help in the strategic-planning process."

THE BILL WOULD ALSO create a senior-level position within the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) to oversee nanotech EHS research. "That person would be outside of the individual agencies, and the person would have the authority and responsibility to ensure that agencies are doing what they need to do to address each of their pieces of the total EHS research pie," Denison tells C&EN.

This leadership position is critical, Maynard adds. "If you are really going to make progress, you need some leader that has the vision, insight, and ability to encourage all of the agencies to pull together in the same direction."

But some people worry that the impact of that new position within OSTP will be limited. "It looks like it might be another coordinating type of role, which may be good if it is focused particularly on EHS. But that person will have no authority to disperse funds to the agencies or to set funding levels for EHS activities within the agencies," says Kristen Kulinowski, director of the International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON) at Rice University.

ICON recently released a report highlighting critical research needs for predicting the impacts of nanomaterials on human health and the environment as identified by an international community of researchers. "Some of the things that were identified in the ICON report do make it into this act," Kulinowski says. For example, the report puts strong emphasis on standardization and research harmonization, which, Kulinowski says, "is very encouraging because the scientific community is recognizing the importance of standardization for improving the quality and comparability of EHS studies."

ANOTHER APPEALING element of the bill is that it calls for creation of an independent advisory panel, Denison says. "That was actually called for in the original bill," he tells C&EN, referring to the 2003 nanotech R&D act. "The White House assigned its President's Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST) as that oversight and advisory body. I think that has proven to be a bit too cozy of a relationship and not independent enough," he adds. H.R. 5940 takes that advisory capacity away from the government and gives it to a truly independent entity.

Assigning this advisory role to PCAST is also problematic, according to Denison, because it has almost no expertise on health and environmental concerns. The bill would require that a subpanel of the advisory panel be specifically populated with people who have the right expertise to address EHS issues, he notes.

The NanoBusiness Alliance, which represents the nanotech industry, strongly supports the bill, says R. Paul Stimers, an attorney with K&L Gates, the alliance's public policy counsel. "From the alliance's perspective, the increased focus on EHS is really important. We've seen how genetically modified foods went bad; we've seen what happens when you don't pay enough attention to these issues," he emphasizes.

One aspect of the bill that particularly appeals to industry is its increased emphasis on moving basic research out of the lab and into the marketplace. "With the current year's funding, we will have spent about $10 billion on nanotech research. Now is the time to begin to make sure we are getting a return on that investment. We don't want to see all of our basic research being commercialized overseas," Stimers tells C&EN.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee will take it up for consideration. Although it is unclear what will happen to the bill, nanotech-related legislation has supporters in that committee. "Certainly, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has been very vocal in saying that we've got to get the EHS aspects right, because if we don't, we are not going to see the benefits of nanotechnology emerge," Maynard notes.

Regardless of what the Senate does, the nanotech community expects it to act quickly, says E. Clayton Teague, director of NNCO. "Everyone on the Hill wants to make sure it happens under this Congress," he adds.

 
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