A nanotechnology report card

Research on how nanotechnology affects human health and the environment must be expanded, states a National Research Council report.

The National Nanotechnology Initiative, created by the Clinton administration in 2000, coordinates the many federal agencies that fund nanotechnology research. In 2003, Congress mandated that the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies, conduct triennial reviews of the initiative.

The first review, released Sept. 25, presents a mixed picture. It cites several of the initiative’s accomplishments, such as the establishment of five new nanoscale science research centers, operated by the Department of Energy. But the report also notes that the United States’ leadership in the field is fading. For example, both Japan and the European Union are catching up to U.S. funding levels.

Overall, U.S. researchers are “facing significant and increasing international competition,” the report says. In the early 1990s, U.S. scientists contributed 40 percent of the papers published globally on nanotechnology, but their share dropped to less than 30 percent in 2004.

The report acknowledges studies showing that engineered nanomaterials can harm laboratory animals but concludes, “it is not possible yet to make a rigorous assessment of the level of risk posed by this class of materials.” The report calls for more research on how nanomaterials affect people and ecosystems. Meanwhile, it recommends taking “precautionary measures” to guard the health of workers, the public, and the environment.

“Addressing the ethical and social impact of nanotechnology will require an integrated approach among scientists, engineers, social scientists, toxicologists, policy makers, and the public,” the report concludes.

Aimee Cunningham is the biomedical writer. She has a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University.

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