Science Magazine
December 9, 2005


By Robert F. Service

Environmentalists and industry insiders alike urge major investments
to maintain the emerging technology's spotless safety record
A rising chorus of government, industry, academic, and environmental
leaders is calling for dramatic increases in funding to study possible
adverse health and environmental effects of nanotechnology. These
individuals--who don't often sing from the same songbook--argue that
without this research, nanotechnology is setting itself up for the
same kind of consumer backlash that has haunted genetically modified
foods. In the past few weeks, the heads of DuPont and Environmental
Defense and committees for the British Royal Society and the Science
Council of Japan all have joined the choir.

Huge investments are at stake, they point out. The U.S. National
Science Foundation projects that by 2015 nanotechnology will have a $1
trillion impact on the world economy and employ 2 million workers
worldwide. Today, global spending on nanotechnology R&D is
approximately $9 billion a year, about one-third of it in the United
States. The U.S. federal government alone spends more than $1 billion
a year on nanotechnology research. But only $39 million of that goes
to studies targeted at understanding the effect of nanoparticles on
human health and the environment. According to the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars, which released an international
database of nanotoxicology research projects last week, that still
makes the United States the largest funder of nanotechnology
environmental, health, and safety studies. The European Commission
ranks second, with about $7.5 million.

Many experts now say that's not enough to test the hundreds of
nanomaterials companies are pursuing. "Organizations as diverse as
environmental NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], large chemical
companies, nanotech start-ups, insurance companies, and investment
firms all agree that the federal government should be immediately
directing many more of the dollars it is currently investing in
nanotechnology development toward identifying and assessing the
potential risks of nanomaterials to human health and the environment,"
Richard Denison, a senior scientist with Environmental Defense in New
York City, said last month in testimony before the United States House
of Representatives Committee on Science. Denison and other
nongovernmental witnesses at the hearing agreed that the United States
should spend at least $100 million a year on testing how exposure to a
wide array of nanoparticles affects cells and organisms. At the same
hearing, Mathew Nordan, vice president of research for Lux Research
Inc., a nanotechnology research firm, upped the ante: He suggested
that governments worldwide devote as much as $200 million a year to a
national nanotechnology toxicology initiative aimed at testing each of
the myriad nanoparticles for threats to human and environmental
health. "It only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch," Nordan said.

Earlier this summer, DuPont CEO Chad Holliday and Environmental
Defense's president Fred Krupp jointly penned an op-ed article in the
Wall Street Journal arguing that nanotoxicity research should be
boosted to 10% of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative budget,
up from the current level of about 4%. And a report published last
week of a recent workshop organized by the United Kingdom's Royal
Society and the Science Council of Japan said that "significant
funding is urgently needed" for environmental, health, and safety
studies of nanotechnology. On 30 November, after the U.K. government
outlined a program to study the risks of nanotechnology, the Royal
Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering called for earmarked
funds to keep the initiative from turning into an ad hoc patchwork of
research projects.

But with funding tight, says David Rajeski, who heads the Wilson
Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, what's needed most is
not more money but coordination. "We need an international nanorisk
research program built on shared knowledge and a clear set of
priorities, " Rajeski says. As a possible f irst step, the Wilson
Center recently compiled a database of more than 350 environmental
health and safety studies in the United States, the United Kingdom,
Canada, Germany, and Taiwan. Among the biggest gaps, it found, are
studies of workplace safety issues, such as unintended worker exposure
to nanoparticles from accidents.

Clayton Teague, who directs the U.S. National Nanotechnology
Coordination Office, says that efforts are well under way to
coordinate nanotoxicology research. In the United States, he says, a
working group from 24 federal agencies is finishing a report that will
set priorities for nanotoxicology research. And on the international
front, progress could come as early as this week at a meeting of the
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Washington,
D.C. OECD member countries are considering setting up a permanent
working group on establishing international nanotoxicology research
priorities. Such measures, Teague and others argue, will better help
governments decide just how much funding is needed for nanotoxicity
research and ensure that it is money well spent.

Still, many toxicologists argue that commercialization of
nanomaterials is rapidly overtaking efforts to study their impact on
human and environmental health. "There has been a tremendous amount of
discussion about increasing and coordinating nanotoxicology funding, "
says David Warheit, a nanotoxicology researcher at DuPont in Newark,
Delaware. "But it's not happening as quickly as it should."

Science 9 December 2005:
Vol. 310. no. 5754, p. 1609

Copyright 2005 American Association for the Advancement of Science