Lawmakers Look to Increase Nanotech Safety Research

The U.S. government needs to increase funding for research about the health, safety and environmental effects of nanotechnology because much of the impact is still unknown, some lawmakers said Wednesday.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee called for a huge increase in the budget for environmental, health and safety (EHS) research in nanotechnology for 2009. President George Bush's 2009 budget increases the nanotech EHS budget by 30 percent, to $76.4 million, but committee Chairman Bart Gordon suggested EHS funding should be double that request.

Nanotech holds great potential, but there should be more research about the health and safety effects of the 600 nanotech products already on the market, said Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat. The U.S. needs to put more money into education and safety research so the public doesn't reject nanotech in the same way that some people have rejected genetically altered food, he said.

"I want us to be able to create jobs in this country built around nanotechnology," he said during a committee hearing. "It concerns me that we're going to have a horror story with one out of 600 [products], and it could put a taint on the entire industry."

Bush's 2009 budget for the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which encompasses nanotech research at 13 government agencies, is $1.53 billion, up from $1.49 billion in fiscal year 2008. A proposal before the Science and Technology Committee would set aside 10 percent of that budget for EHS research, instead of the 5 percent in Bush's budget.

Most of the six witnesses at the committee hearing agreed that funding for EHS research needs to increase, but some questioned the need for it to be 10 percent of the total federal nanotech budget.

A significant amount of the federal nanotech budget goes into building maintenance and instrumentation, meaning an increase in the EHS research budget could cut into other nanotech research, said Floyd Kvamme, co-chairman of the president's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. "If you actually talk about dollars and cents going to researchers," Bush's EHS budget is close to 10 percent of funding, Kvamme said.

In addition, much nanotech research includes EHS research, and it's hard to separate EHS research for the purposes of meeting a 10 percent budget number, Kvamme said. "If you're working on a chemotherapy drug, are you working on EHS issues or are you working on cancer cures?" he said. "It's a tough question to answer."

But other witnesses said more EHS research is needed to help the public understand the benefits of nanotech as well as any potential risks. "Safe nanotechnology will not just happen," said Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The U.S. government "desperately" needs to educate consumers about nanotech to avoid horror stories in the media, added Representative Vernon Ehlers, a Michigan Republican. Nanotech "has such an enormous potential to change our lives in ways we can't imagine," he said. "Yet, I don't think we quite have a handle on how we're going to use it ... and what the dangers are."

In addition to health and safety research, more consumer education and teaching about nanotech in colleges and high schools is needed, added Joseph Krajcik, a professor of education at the University of Michigan. "Most of our children, most of our adult population doesn't even understand the scale we're talking about," he said. "I think we have a lot of work we have to do to educate our country so that we are informed citizens."

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