Science and Technology Innovation Program

Nanotechnology: Forging Ahead Responsibly

by Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Oct 04, 2005

Nanotechnology is hailed by some as the next technological revolution and is poised to impact every aspect of our lives. As in all things, however, the progress made possible by this exciting new technology must be moderated by its potential implications for the society we live in.

The new public perceptions survey conducted by the Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies shows that the U.S. public generally is optimistic about the technology. But at the same time, Americans are reluctant to accept such technologies without first knowing that possible risks have been studied and that human health and the environment are safeguarded.

Accomplishing this with due diligence is no trivial task. Presently, relatively few studies have addressed the impact of engineered nanomaterials on human health and the environment. Today, scientists, industry leaders, and governments are only beginning to forge international agreement on precise definitions and measurements used in nanotechnology. Even more important, scientists and engineers lack many of the tools and standard methodologies necessary to adequately assess the safety of these complex materials and their novel properties.

In the future, as nanotechnology gains ubiquity and blurs traditional boundaries between biotechnology, computer, and cognitive sciences, the challenge of assessing its benefits and risks will grow exponentially.

Rising to this challenge will take a greater research investment into nanotechnology's potential adverse health and environmental implications, alongside ongoing research efforts aimed at achieving such benefits as more effective cancer treatments and "green" applications like cheaper, more sustainable energy.

No one country has the money and know-how to do this alone. Just as nanotechnology's applications reach beyond national borders, examining its potential health and environmental risks must be an international enterprise. In today's world, we have the models to do this. Recent efforts to map the human, plant, and animal genomes demonstrate how scientists from many nations can collaborate effectively toward solving common problems and meeting shared scientific goals. If nanotechnology is to realize its enormous promise, models such as these need to be adapted and applied in an international effort aimed at studying nanotechnology's potential human health and environmental impacts.

—Point of View column, from the October 2005 issue of Centerpoint

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