Nanotechnology Needs Nano-Scale Regulation

Anyone who purchased clear sunscreen or wore stain-resistant pants during the holidays was probably enjoying the benefits of commercialized nanotechnology. While nanotech advances are exciting, some observers dangerously press for greater government oversight in the sector.

Nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter at the molecular level, can create better materials, such as stronger metals and better paints. It also opens the door for self-replicating devices and particles so small that they may enter the bloodstream to help cure disease. This revolution, like any new technology, can be deployed for beneficial or nefarious purposes.

Risks and Benefits

In a report released this week, environmental policy analyst J. Clarence Davies argued for greater regulation of nanotechnology. America’s current laws, he says, “either suffer from major shortcomings of legal authority, or from a gross lack of resources, or both.” The problem, according to Davies, is that current laws “provide a very weak basis for identifying and protecting the public from potential risk, especially as nanotechnologies become more complex in structure and function and the applications become more diverse.”

Of course, Davies also admits that “we know little about possible adverse effects of nanotechnology.” That’s partly because of the nascent status of the technology and perhaps also because the risks aren’t that high. Even government officials seemed surprised at the suggestion of new regulations.

Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, told the Associated Press that “Until we have information that there are truly inadequacies in existing regulations, any additional regulations beyond what we already would have would be burdensome to industry and the advancement of the field.”

It’s encouraging to see national policy makers taking such a reasonable stand. Perhaps that’s because they know that advances in nanotechnology will bring greater economic opportunities and tax dollars.

Indeed, it has been estimated that by 2015, the global marketplace for products that use the technology will reach US$1 trillion and employ two million workers. The technology is so promising that the state of California recently released a report brainstorming on how to create a successful Nano-Valley, similar to Silicon Valley, which didn’t face regulatory threats in its infancy.

Workable Rules

For his part, Davies argues that current levels of government oversight could create distrust and lead to a “public rejection of the technology.” While government rules sometimes have a legitimizing effect, that’s a poor reason to support them. Over-regulation comes with serious dangers too.

Not only can too many regulations strangle innovation in the cradle, but over-regulation can ironically cause under-regulation, leading to safety hazards. In “Forward to the Future,” a Pacific Research Institute report, law professor and celebrity blogger Glenn Reynolds discusses this problem.

“When statutes require especially stringent regulations, administrators will tend not to issue regulations at all. Extraordinarily strict rules on workplace toxins, for example, have led to a failure by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to address all but a tiny minority of chemicals believed to be toxic.” And of course, government rules tend to discourage the creation of private-sector solutions.

Light Regulation

The scientific community is well aware of the potential dangers with nano-scale particles. The public will be glad to know that the discussion over proper methods is thriving and developing in tandem with the technology. In addition, concerned groups such as the Foresight Institute in California have released guidelines for self-regulation modeled on the extensive experience in biotechnology where there has been great technical progress and little danger to public safety.

Nanotechnology holds much promise for advances in a number of areas such as material science and medicine, but the nascent industry faces threats from those who believe government should solve problems before they occur. Nanotech scientists must be free to develop their products, as well as the rules that govern their development, in order to reap the rewards and protect society from potential pitfalls. The best approach is the light regulation that already exists, combined with a strong scientific culture of self-regulation.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute and co-author of “Upgrading America’s Ballot Box: The Rise of E-voting.”

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