Is the Window Closing?

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.

As one who has closely followed the emergence of nanotechnology, I am sure I was not alone several years ago in welcoming what appeared to be a refreshingly new attitude among a broad range of stakeholders toward the introduction of this new set of technologies and materials.  Calls from my organization to "get nanotech right the first time" were echoed widely.  Perhaps the most frequently used metaphor, though, was that a "window of opportunity" had opened to do things differently this time.  But I increasingly fear that the window is closing.

Not long ago, the debate over nanotechnology seemed to reflect a willingness to learn from past failures in how our society had approached the introduction of other novel technologies like genetically modified organisms.  Many called for an inclusiveness that provided a seat at the table for all stakeholders.  And all parties, the industry included, tacitly if not always overtly agreed that a more cautious approach was needed, one that would identify and forthrightly address potential risks alongside the development – that is to say, the responsible development – of nanotechnology.

Perhaps the first sign of trouble came about 18 months ago, when officials charged with overseeing the National Nanotechnology Initiative testified before Congress to the effect that all the hoopla about nano risks was overblown and the result of shoddy science.  Then a year ago February, the White House felt obliged to issue its so-called "Principles for Nanotechnology Environmental, Health, and Safety Oversight," addressed to all federal departments and agencies, that seemed primarily intended to rein in any renegade federal officials hell-bent on over-regulating nanotechnology.

The latest signs that the window of opportunity is closing fast are coming from some among the legions of lawyers whose business it is to protect nano-enabled companies from legal actions.  As Rick Weiss reported last week in a piece titled "The Big Business of Nano Litigation," industry lawyers are sending mixed messages to their clients, some of them now apparently advising their clients to forget all the warm fuzzy stuff.  The latter group's messages:

  • Don't rush to line up to work voluntarily with government agencies.
  • Don't volunteer to turn over your data to government.
  • Don't do any testing that you aren't required to do. (Rick Weiss quotes George Burdock, president of the Burdock Group, as advising clients not to overdo it: "Don't test yourself out of a product.")

That kind of advice might help to explain the low level of participation in both the basic and in-depth components of EPA's voluntary Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program.

I certainly don't want to imply this is the only or even the predominant message reaching or emanating from nano companies, but these kinds of statements seem to signal an unfortunate shift toward a more defensive strategy and away from one that would keep that window of opportunity open at least a while longer.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted March 4, 2009 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    it is really interesting that you make this point because I was just reading another blog yesterday that said that non-tech was the bright shinning ray of hope for the economy, to which I disagree slightly. http://www.nanotechproject.org/events/archive/shapira/

    There are almost as many opinions as there are DNA Origami projects. If you've ever read Micheal Crichton book "Next", then you are familiar with an over embellished example of what was happening in the genetics market years ago. With more "investors" comes more responsibility to parties besides the EPA, OSHA, and "pure science" (if that exists).

    As a graduating student in Material Science who is slightly involved in nano-tech, I find it interesting that as I look for jobs many of the research based jobs being offered are in nano-tech, and most of those are with the government (NASA, FBI, etc.). It will be interesting as government restrictions are increased (I saw this first hand on a government research facility last summer when Nano-tubes where shown possibly to have asbestos like properties)to see how much of the public sector continues to compete, and how much the government will continue funding such research.

    Sorry for such a long post in a blog that was so short before I voiced my opinion. Enjoyed the topic.

  2. Posted March 6, 2009 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    As a local environmental health policymaker I am both encourage and dismayed to read Dr. Denison's comment. Encouraged by his perspicacity and dismayed that we are even having this discussion at this point. The community I serve (Cambridge, MA see our municipal policy at http://www.cambridgepublichealth.org/policy-practice/nano_policy.php) and the state in which I reside (http://www.umass.edu/tei/conferences/nanoconference/completeprogram.html) has made a commitment to pursue a collaborative, healthy and safe approach to policy.

    But I have nevertheless observed a selectively defensive tone in our efforts to work with parts of the "sector" (in fact several unrelated sectors). This is by no means universal and it is not strictly illogical on the part of an emerging industrial enterprise that fears that it will be stifled before the promise begins to be realized. Indeed the areas of benefits from nanomaterials and nano-engineering include many that could allow us to protect human health, protect the environment, battle disease, and surge into the anticipated "green energy" economy.

    But the lesson we are beginning to learn from the behavior of the financial sector over the past generation must not be lost. If the government does not play the role of defender of the public interest it is simply not reasonable to expect the private sector to assume that role. We are again realizing and re-learning that our society is simply not exempt from the constraints of human nature and the hazards of the abdicating responsibility for the promotion of a balance of public interests. We have to remind all stakeholders that there is an indelible "common good" and that this is not a narrow agenda, but the broadest interest of our communities and the nanotech sector.

    Sorry for the declarative tone; enjoyed the commentary.

  3. claire
    Posted March 26, 2009 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    The information I am about to submit will undoubtedly be met with extreme pessimism, but I will do so anyway. It is with the hope that there will be people out there who are open-minded enough to scrutinize this work.
    There is a newly emerging global epidemic called "Morgellons Disease", but is being studied under the name "Unknown Skin Dermopathy" by the CDC. It is also listed on the NIH tree of diseases.
    An environmental toxicologist – Hildegarde Staninger, PhD – became involved with the study of this horrific affliction in 2006. Thre disease has many symptoms (see: Morgellons.org), but one of them is the production of colored fibers. These fibers do not match any known fibers when compared to the nearly 900 in the FBI data base (see: OSU – Dr. Wymore – Morgellons), nor do their chemical composition match any of the 90,000 substances in the same database.
    Dr. Staninger received samples of these fibers, which were surgically extracted from a patient during knee replacement surgery, and sent them to MIT Woods Hole, among other reputable labs.
    The findings of these labs point to various types of plastic materials.
    Dr. Staninger studied this condition extensively, collecting many different types of nanostructures from victims, and has concluded that nanotechnology is the cause of Morgellons.
    Her website is: staningerreport.com. When you get there, click on "current report" to see the report presented to her peers, a group of other environmental toxicologists in their annual meetings (2006 and 2007).
    There are currently 14,000 families (some with multple family members afflicted) registered at MRF and OSU websites. This number is thought to be the tip of the iceberg, as Morgellons is nearly always self-diagnosed by people who have computer skills to research their symptoms.
    Others have found what was wrong with them from Discovery Health's "Mystery ER" ("String Theory") which debuted in Oct. 2008. It has also been highlighted on Inside Edition, Nightline, Dr. Phil, and numerous print and electronic media in the past year.
    There is no question that this is spreading rapidly, and many are committing suicide. Among the more famous people with this affliction are singer Joni Mitchell and ex-baseball player Billy Koch (whose wife and two children are also afflicted; it forced his retirement). Singer Karen Stern committed suicide in the fall of 2007 due to this illness.
    It deserves your utmost attention and consideration. If you believe that there is the slightest chance that Dr. Staninger is correct, I implore you to contact her before that window is completely closed for all of us.
    Claire

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