Calls for high-quality research into the risks of nanotechnology date back as far as the field itself, but now one august body has added its voice. In a report released today the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) calls for a more coordinated research strategy to cover open questions as basic as how many nanoparticles of different kinds are being released into the environment, and who is being exposed to them. “There are some significant gaps that we need to address in order to move forward,” says Rebecca Klaper, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who served on the authoring committee.
The report also criticizes the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), which since 2000 has coordinated operations at the many US agencies that fund nanomaterials-risks research, focusing on the NNI’s dual role in promoting nanotechnology while also overseeing research on its risks. Klaper says that the NNI was founded to promote job creation in industries that use nanotechnology, such as cosmetics and car manufacturing. “There’s a potential conflict,” she says. The NAS panel is urging that the promotional activity be separated from the oversight of research into risks. It also says the NNI needs additional budgetary authority to shepherd some of the US$120 million that the US now spends piecemeal on nanomaterials-risk research in a larger, better coordinated effort. Research would also benefit from a small funding increase of around $22 million–$24 million per year, the panel says.
A spokeswoman for NNI says, “we see no inherent conflict of interest in the NNI’s focus on the responsible development of nanotechnology.” She adds that the NNI believes the current approach to shared budgetary responsibilities has been very effective and that the new authority recommended by the report would require action by the US Congress.
A report issued by the NNI in 2011 released a research strategy for nanotechnology but the NAS did not look at that as part of its study, which the spokeswoman says is unfortunate, as the NNI has already covered many of the elements the study calls for.
In December, Nature reported on concerns over the standards and quality of the nanotoxicology literature. As did the experts quoted in that story, the NAS called for accelerated development of standard reference materials so that researchers can calibrate the materials they are testing relative to one another.
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