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Federal Government Policy Principles on Nanotechnology: Balancing Regulation and Oversight with Commercialization to Realize Full Potential

Written by: 
Jeff Morse, PhD

As the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation considers a reauthorization of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the Space and Science Subcommittee convened a hearing this month to examine the potential of nanotechnology. With Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV) chairing the hearing, expert testimony was provided by a panel that included Dr. Chad Mirkin, Director, International Institute for Nanotechnology, Northwestern University, Member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST); Dr. Charles Romine, Acting Associate Director, Laboratory Programs, and Principal Deputy, Office of the Director, National Institute of Standards and Technology; Dr. Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, Director, West Virginia Nano Initiative, Professor of Physics, West Virginia University; Dr. Thomas O’Neal, Associate Vice President for Research and Commercialization, University of Central Florida Executive Director, University of Central Florida Business Incubation Program; and Dr. George McLendon, Howard R. Hughes Provost and Professor of Chemistry, Rice University. The panel of experts provided testimony on topics such as federal initiatives to coordinate research investments, barriers to commercialization, possible environmental and health risks, and steps the federal government can take to improve the return on federal nanotechnology investments.

The panel’s testimony supported the previous recommendations from the report on nanotechnology by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which encourages Federal support for the commercialization of nanotechnology-enabled products, while further calling for the establishment of rational, science- and risk-based regulatory approaches that would be based on a material’s properties and plausible risks, rather than on the basis of size alone. Emerging nanomanufacturing and nanotechnologies hold the promise of significant scientific, economic, and societal impacts resulting from the potential impact to fields such as materials science, electronics, medicine, communications, agriculture, and energy. Rapid scientific and technological advances in these fields are resulting in a variety of new products and processes with unique and transformational properties, yet full realization of the economic and public benefits of these applications will require open consideration of policy questions from the full range of stakeholders, including government, industry, non-governmental organizations, academia, and the public.

Prior to this hearing, the White House had issued a Nanotechnology Policy Memo to all federal agencies in June 2011, effectively calling out the need for a balance between government oversight and regulation, and the importance of a growing nanotechnology industry. In order to achieve this balance, the recently formed Emerging Technologies Interagency Policy Coordination Committee (ETIPC) has developed a set of principles specific to the regulation and oversight of applications of nanotechnology, to guide the development and implementation of policies at the agency level. 

A targeted objective of these principles and policies is the achievement of consistent approaches assessing various emerging technologies, and to further ensure the protection of public health and the environment while avoiding unjustifiably inhibiting innovation, stigmatizing new technologies, or creating trade barriers. Subsequently, the realization of nanotechnology’s full potential requires continued research and flexible, science-based approaches to regulation that protect public health and the environment while promoting economic growth, innovation, competitiveness, exports, and job creation. The ETIPC consists of assistant secretary-level representatives from about 20 Federal agencies, and supports the commitment of the White House to scientific integrity, promoting innovation andopen government, ensuring that the benefits of regulation justify the costs, and facilitating international trade.

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