UK losing headway on assessing nano risks

The government has failed on its promise to investigate the health and environmental implications of nanotechnology, an advisory committee has concluded.1 The UK will miss opportunities presented by the nanotech industry expected to be worth $1 trillion by 2015, the committee says, unless public concern can be allayed.

The government agreed to kick-start research into nanotechnology risks two years ago in a series of commitments made in response to a groundbreaking report by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (ENDS Report 357, pp 30-35 ).

Nano-scale materials measure less than 100 nanometres in at least one dimension and can have different properties to their larger versions, prompting concern about their potential effects on health and the environment.

The Council for Science and Technology, one of the government’s top-level advisory committees, has reviewed progress against the commitments at the government’s request.

On investigating the potential risks the CST found "there has been virtually nothing done by government to resolve this problem," review chairman Professor John Beringer said. "It’s totally absurd to have a report… and then not to do the research that was your number-one target."

He blames the government’s ‘responsive’ mode of research funding, which relies on scientists applying for research council grants. The UK has spent only £3 million on toxicology and environmental research over the past five years compared with £40 million per year on advancing the technology and £90 million on commercialisation.

"The safe development of a new technology should not depend on whether an academic wins a highly competitive research grant," concludes Professor Beringer.

He suggests £6 million per year should be ring-fenced for direct funding - a move that Environment Department (DEFRA) officials would welcome. The government should also lobby the EU to ensure nanotech risks get a sufficient chunk of its 2007-2013 research budget (ENDS Report 383, p 29 ).

In 2004, when the Royal Society published its nanotechnology report, the UK was considered to be in the vanguard of research. But the CST finds the lead has been lost to Japan and the US, which are investing more heavily.

The nanotechnology industry is expected to be worth $1 trillion by 2015 and the UK must make more progress to capitalise on the opportunities the technology presents while maintaining public confidence, the CST advises.

But it praises the government’s precautionary approach to nanotechnology, its work with industry to minimise the volume of nanoparticles reaching the waste stream, and its ban on their use in land and water remediation until more safety information is available.

The review also welcomes the government’s involvement in international nanotechnology programmes and research to categorise and measure nanoparticles. The public engagement side of the programme is also promising, it says, but does not seem sufficiently connected to the policy-making process.

The review notes the limited progress of DEFRA’s voluntary reporting scheme, which was launched six months ago to collect safety data from industry but has received only six submissions (ENDS Report 384, p 25 ).

The scheme has potential but must address companies’ concerns about confidentiality, the CST says. If this does not work, it should be made mandatory.

The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering share the CST’s concerns on research funding. The government’s "ad hoc approach… has clearly not worked", says Professor Ann Dowling, who led the societies’ 2004 report. She agrees it should be replaced by earmarked funding.

Science and innovation minister Malcolm Wicks said the government will publish a full response in due course but admitted there were problems.

"Research is under way into potential health and environmental hazards, but we are disappointed that few researchers wishing to investigate the implications for human health have applied for the funding that is available," he said in a statement.

A checklist drawn up by a group of experts and published in Nature at the end of last year shows the magnitude of the task ahead. It expects instruments that can measure exposure to nanoparticles to take three to ten years to develop and the creation of toxicology tests to take five to 15 years.2In the meantime, chemicals giant DuPont and campaign group Environmental Defense have worked together to develop a framework for "responsible nanotechnology".3 The intention is to help companies identify and reduce risks posed by nanotech products throughout their life cycle even if information is incomplete.