Nanotechnology governance – a personal perspective from Shobita Parthasarathy

by Shobita Parthasarathy on February 3, 2011

Shobita Parthasarathy is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and Co-Director of the school’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy program. She will be discussing nanotechnology with Martin Philbert, Mark Banaszak Holl and Andrew Maynard at Nanotechnology – Unplugged on February 8th, 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM.

So far, our approach to governing nanotechnology seems to be following in the footsteps of our approach to biotechnology, and this should be cause for concern. Instead of developing new regulations to deal with the new challenges that nanotechnology poses, the United States seems to be fitting it into existing regulatory frameworks in order to prevent an undue burden on innovators. This is quite similar to the “coordinated framework” adopted to deal with biotechnology in the 1980s, when policymakers decided that the products did not raise major new issues in comparison to their conventional counterparts, and therefore did not warrant any new agency oversight. Although this approach has allowed for expansion of the biotechnology industry, it has led not only to a lack of preparedness for many of the consequences of the field, but also to opposition among environmental groups, small and organic farmers, scholars, and citizens.

How can policymakers ensure that the emerging field of nanotechnology does not meet a similar fate? By paying attention to at least four things:

First, policymakers must develop a singular and integrated approach to nanotechnology policy. A number of observers, including the non-partisan Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, found that reliance on existing regulatory frameworks—despite efforts to coordinate work among agencies—led to a patchwork approach to dealing with biotechnology, with many issues falling through the cracks. Of course, this is not surprising, as newly discovered problems always raise issues that old regulations, however “coordinated” they may be, cannot handle. The old regulations were devised with earlier problems in mind. Furthermore, this type of approach does not allow policymakers to take into account new evidence (or even types of evidence) that might be relevant to the new problem.

Second, regulations must deal with the effects of nanotechnology after it has been released into society. A registry that tracks the types of nanomaterials that are produced and catalogs their appearance in commercially available products is a start, but it is not nearly enough. In order to ensure that we develop an understanding of the impact of nanomaterials on health, environment, economy, and society, we must devote attention and funding to post-market surveillance of nanomaterials. This forces us to consider not only the immediate toxicity of nanomaterials, but also the long term effects once they become widespread in the population. This kind of post-market surveillance should include: attention to second-order impacts (such as the impacts of nanomedicines not only on the human body, but also on the environment once they are excreted); assessment of nanotechnologies throughout their “life cycle” (all of the processes and products associated with production and consumption); and consideration of socioeconomic impacts (such as how nanomaterials might shape social roles, structures, and processes).

Third, our approach to nanotechnology policy should incorporate a broad array of evidence and expertise. In developing the regulatory approach to biotechnology, policymakers focused primarily on possible toxicity for human health or the environment rather that considering ethical, social, economic, or ecosystem issues. For example, they did not consider how agricultural biotechnology might impact organic farming, or how it might affect small or subsistence farmers across the world—issues which arose soon after the initial approach was put into place and have remained problematic. We must do a better job of incorporating these issues into our approach to nanotechnology. This will require not only a broader understanding of what constitutes relevant evidence and expertise, but also a flexible regulatory approach that will allow us to incorporate new types of evidence and expertise as they are produced and/or become relevant.

Finally, we must do a better job of incorporating public concerns into nanotechnology policymaking. This is important so that we can reduce controversy and maintain public trust, but also so we can make better decisions. The scholars who have conducted public engagement exercises in various areas of science and technology have consistently shown that citizens can bring knowledge and worldviews that can be extremely helpful for innovators and policymakers. We can no longer exclude them because they simply “don’t understand”.

Attention to the potential promise and pitfalls of nanotechnology is new enough that we have the opportunity to develop a better regulatory approach than we did for biotechnology. But we must act fast in order to ensure that we can maximize the potential benefits of this new technology while minimizing its potential health, environmental, economic, social, and ethical risks.

Related posts:

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