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.