Industry Renews Call To Study Nanotechnology Risks

Testifying before the House Science Committee Thursday (Sept. 21) about the environmental and safety effects of nanotechnology, experts said the government needs to invest more in risk research.

"The federal government needs to invest a minimum of $100 million over the next two years in targeted risk research in order to lay a strong, science-based foundation for safe technology," said Andrew Maynard of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

According to Lux Research, nanotechnology-based products could reach $2.6 trillion by 2014. However, some in the industry are concerned that the nanotechnology industry could be stunted by concerns over environmental and safety factors.

Maynard, chief science advisor for the Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, told the panel: "Nanotechnology is no longer a scientific curiosity. It is in the workplace, the environment and the home. But if people are to realize nanotechnology's benefits, the federal government needs a master plan for identifying and reducing potential risks."

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Citing a critical report published in July, Maynard noted that the U.S. spends $1 billion annually on nanotechnology research but only $11 million on studying nanotechnology risks.

Similar concerns surfaced last fall when industry, government and environmental leaders called for more research on nanotechnology's environmental and safety implications.

Other countries have taken limited action. The U.K. Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs is launching a voluntary reporting scheme for engineered nanoscale materials starting Friday (Sept. 22). The program aims to understand the characteristics of engineered nanoscale materials while stimulating a debate on appropriate controls.

The EPA is considering a similar program.

The debate over nanotechnology risks comes as the technology's fortunes may be fading.

In July, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reported the rate of nanotechnology patents increased only 4 percent in 2005, after exceeding 20 percent the previous year.

In addition, a study by Bourne Research noted the amount of venture capital invested in MEMS and nanotechnology companies fell 15.4 percent compared to the first half of 2005. The market researcher said funding of nanotech startups declined 38.7 percent during the same period, while funding of MEMS startups rose 23.6 percent.