Pressing risk-related questions requires deliberate action on an international scale. They will be answered only by matching research efforts and funding levels to the information needed to steer toward a safe future for nanotechnology applications.
Last year, five research grand challenges for developing safe nanotechnology were published in the scientific journal Nature.
These included finding ways to measure the amount of nanomaterials in the air and water; learning how to assess how harmful nanomaterials are; developing ways to predict -- and prevent -- harm from new nanomaterials; becoming skilled at evaluating the potential impact of nanotechnology products from the cradle to the grave; and establishing strategies and funding to support the research needed to meet these challenges.
Some nations and regions are beginning to develop research agendas that respond to these five challenges. For example, the European Union has recently announced a US$3.6 billion nanotechnology research program, which includes environment, health, and safety goals that align with these challenges.
Likewise, in March, the British government's top advisory body on science and technology warned that the country's lead in nanotechnology is fading because the government has not invested enough in research necessary for understanding and effectively managing possible health and environmental effects.
There is still a long way to go. If sustainable nanotechnology is to be built on sound science, global research strategies must be supported by innovative policies and accompanied by sufficient funds to do the job.
In the US alone, estimates of the necessary funding levels for goal-oriented nanotechnology risk research are between US$50 million and US$100 million per year -- five to 10 times the amount invested in 2005.
We cannot afford to drive blind into the nanotechnology future.
Despite a good start, many countries are developing these 21st century technologies within an old and blinkered mindset. If we do not develop the ways and means to spot and navigate around possible new risks, the outlook for this exciting new technology will be uncertain.
We must wake up to the need for future nanotechnology applications to be based on a sound understanding of the possible impact. In the global race for nanotechnology leadership, the winners will be those who understand the risks and support the research necessary to minimize them.
Andrew Maynard is chief science adviser of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Copyright: Project Syndicate