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Bush Loses Latest Round on Nanotech Safety

The tug of war over the best way to ensure the safety of nanotechnology is nearly over. The Bush Administration has lost ground. Its longtime critics in the U.S. Congress, academia, and nongovernmental organizations have gained ground.

The two sides have fought to a standoff for years over the strategy the federal government should take to ensure that the environmental, health, and safety (EHS) risks of nanotechnology are adequately addressed. Administration officials have long maintained that the agencies funding the research—such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—are best qualified to set their own research priorities to ensure nanotech safety. Critics, meanwhile, have argued that this leads to a duplication of efforts and gaps where no agency is willing to pick up the ball. What's needed, they argue, is an overall vision and plan for how to get there and to come up with the money to do so.

The House Science and Technology Committee passed a bill earlier this year reauthorizing the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), which coordinates federal agencies participating in nanotech research. Within the bill were add-ons that pushed much of the critics' agenda, including a proposal to appoint an EHS czar. But the Administration pushed back on the czar, among other things, and with the economic chaos this fall, the bill never made it through.

Last year, the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, which oversees day-to-day operations of NNI, asked the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) for an independent review of NNI's EHS strategic plan. This morning, NRC came down squarely in the critics' camp. In its report, the NRC committee concludes that NNI's plan suffers from serious weaknesses and represents essentially an ad hoc collection of research priorities from the 25 federal agencies that make up its membership. "The current plan catalogs nano-risk research across several federal agencies, but it does not present an overarching research strategy needed to gain public acceptance and realize the promise of nanotechnology," says David Eaton, an environmental and occupational health scientist at the University of Washington, Seattle, who chaired the committee that wrote the report.

"It shows we haven't been out on a limb for the last few years," says Andrew Maynard, chief scientist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies in Washington, D.C. Maynard has long criticized coordination of EHS research under NNI, and he was also a member of the NRC panel that wrote today's report. "Now the government needs to decide who needs to do what risk research and where the money is going to come from." For more thoughts from Maynard, check out his latest blog posting.

Early indications suggest that the business community and the Congress will support that push. In a statement issued this morning, a coalition of eight small and large companies, including DuPont and BASF, as well as environmental groups and research outfits, say they are pleased with the report, because it presents "a thorough and forthright review of the NNI's strategy document. Its report echoes concerns our organizations have raised since the release of the strategy in February 2008." Bart Gordon (D-TN), the chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, also chimed in this morning with a statement saying he shares many of the concerns raised by the new report. He also pledged that his committee will reintroduce the NNI reauthorization legislation next year and take the NRC report's recommendations into account.

Still on the table is a potential next step from EPA. Last year, President George W. Bush signed legislation urging EPA to commission another National Academies study to develop a comprehensive research road map for all federal agencies on nano-EHS research. So far, it has been crickets from EPA. Today, the coalition of eight companies, enviros, and research outfits renewed the call for EPA to act. If they don't soon, attention will shift to the incoming Obama Administration to see whether they'll take any action.

UPDATE: The White House response after the jump.

White House science adviser John Marburger said today in a statement:

"Few if any research areas benefit from as much interagency coordination as environmental, health and safety issues associated with nanotechnology, and the report’s primary core recommendation—to build upon the February 2008 report through development of a refined strategy for EHS research—is consistent with the approach actually being taken by NNI member agencies."