Nanotechnology & The Public Interest

Regulatory Challenges, Capacity, and Policy Recommendations

Nanotechnology Interdisciplinary Research Team
National Science Foundation, SES #0609078 (2006-2012)
Christopher Bosso, Lead PI

This project focused on the capacity of government to support technological innovation and economic growth while addressing potential environmental and public health impacts.

Intellectual Merit: After years of observing debates over the governance of emerging nanotechnologies, we conclude that we no longer saw ‘nano’ per se as a useful category for assessing and responding to the policy challenges associated with technologies that make use of the novel properties of materials and systems at the nanoscale. Because nanoscale science and engineering is a broad-based (or enabling) technological platform, it encompasses a wide variety of research programs, products, and applications with divergent social, ethical, and regulatory profiles. The fact that something is ‘nano’ in and of itself does not indicate anything about its benefits and risks, who has oversight and control over it, whether it poses challenges to civil liberties, whether it is likely to be a social good, who it empowers, or its ecological impacts. Moreover, the immediate social and regulatory challenges posed by nanoscale products and processes have less to do with their ‘nano-ness’ than with the features of the contexts into which they are emerging. To promote nanotechnology as a social good, we must address familiar issues of risk assessment, access to technology, educational equality, environmental justice, and public involvement. In some cases the “nano-ness” of nanotechnologies might complicate these challenges (e.g., due to uncertainties created by information deficits), but the challenges themselves are not novel. Indeed, in many cases there exist public policies to address them. Therefore, developing nanotechnologies in such a way that they, so far as possible, promote human flourishing in just and sustainable ways has much less to do with dealing with the ‘nano-ness’ of nanotechnology than with dealing with already problematic features of existing regulatory and policy domains (e.g., health care, environmental justice).

Broader Impacts: Even if not “revolutionary,” the broad range of nano-enhanced products and applications soon to emerge in so many different sectors of the marketplace will pose new challenges to existing governance regimes and institutions. If nothing else, nanotechnology – even in its most basic form – increases the complexity of even the most immediate and familiar challenges, such as protecting workers from chronic exposure to particles, which in turn will generate new stresses for businesses and governments alike. If this is the case, we need to focus our immediate attention on whether current frameworks for environmental and health governance adequately address known, even somewhat prosaic risks. This project also laid the groundwork for future work, with particular focus on the utility of life cycle analysis in regulatory decision-making, the ethical dimensions of policy (e.g., the line between therapeutics and enhancement technologies), and the role of state governments in balancing economic development and the protection of public health as they promote new technologies.

Selected Publications:

[1] C. Bosso, ed., 2010. Governing Uncertainty: Environmental Regulation in the Age of Nanotechnology. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future / Earthscan Press.

[2] C. Bosso, “Settling for Suboptimal: Nanotechnology Meets Path Dependency in the U.S. Regulatory System,” in S. Lacour, ed., Des nanotechnologies aux technologies émergentes: La regulation en perspectives. Brussels: Larcier: 141-160.

[3] C. Bosso, R. A. DeLeo, and W. D. Kay. 2011. “Reinventing Oversight in the 21st Century: The Question of Capacity,” Journal of Nanoparticle Research 13, 4 (February): 1435-1448; DOI: 10.1007/s11051-011-0232-3.

[4] R. Sandler and W. D. Kay. 2012. “Nanotechnology as the new GMO?” in Cutter, A. M. and Gordijn, B., eds. In Pursuit of Nanoethics: Transatlantic Reflections on Nanotechnology (Springer).

[5] R. Sandler and C. Bosso. 2007. “Tiny Technology, Enormous Implications,” Issues in Science and Technology 23(4), pp. 28-30 (2007).

[6] C. Bosso, J. Isaacs, W. D. Kay, and R. Sandler. 2006. “Leaving the Laboratory: Regulatory and Societal Issues Confronting Nanotechnology Commercialization”, Nanomanufacturing Handbook. CRC Press, September 2006: 377-388.