Official: Federal Nanotech EHS Research is a Priority

Dec. 11, 2006
The co-chair of the interagency group that coordinates and manages the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) defended the federal government's spending on nanotechnology EHS research, calling EHS research a "priority" in which investments are being made "in growing amounts."

Dr. Celia Merzbacher, co-chair of the National Science and Technology Council's Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology Subcommittee – a cabinet-level body that coordinates NNI – noted that the federal agencies in NNI spent $35 million on nanotech EHS research in fiscal year 2005 and an estimated $37.5 million in fiscal year 2006.

According to Merzbacher, the Bush administration is requesting $44 million for nanotech EHS research for 2007.

"As you can see, the amount that's being spent in this area is steadily growing," Merzbacher said during a presentation at the International Conference on Nanotechnology Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety in Cincinnati. " … So, between FY 06 and FY 07, there's about an 18 percent increase in spending in this area overall."

Merzbacher pointed to an interagency memo sent earlier this year by John Marburger III, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Rob Portman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, which identifies funding for the agencies of NNI as a federal research and development priority.

"To ensure that nanoscience research leads to the responsible development of beneficial applications, high priority should be given to research on societal implications, human health and environmental issues related to nanotechnology," Marburger and Portman wrote. "And agencies should develop, where applicable, cross-agency approaches to the funding and execution of this research."

Such a memo, Merzbacher said, illustrates that agencies involved in NNI "are certainly getting the message from the administration that this is a priority and something that they're encouraged to develop research programs around."

Federal Nanotech EHS Spending Has Been Criticized

A recent report written by the National Research Council's Committee to Review the National Nanotechnology Initiative asserts that "EHS research needs to be accelerated and improved if the potential of nanotechnology is to be realized."

While supporting "responsible development" of nanotechnology – a rubric that includes worker safety and health – is one of NNI's four stated goals, the report notes that just 3.7 percent of NNI's fiscal-year 2006 budget was earmarked for EHS research. Another 4 percent was allocated for research on the ethical, legal and social implications of nanotechnology.

Andrew Maynard, Ph.D., chief science advisor for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, is urging the Bush administration to increase its nanotech EHS research spending to at least $100 million over the next 2 years. Maynard has said that the R&D funding is needed for "targeted risk research in order to begin to fill in our occupational safety knowledge gaps and to lay a strong, science-based foundation for safe nanotechnology workplaces."

Merzbacher defended criticisms of the percentage of the NNI budget allocated for EHS research, asserting that the overall NNI budget – it is estimated to be $1.3 billion for 2006 – might not be "the right denominator" to look at. She said that much of that money is being spent on applications such as "nanoelectronics and other applications that are really not a risk from a health and safety perspective."

"So if what you're saying is that you should be spending some rule-of-thumb fraction of your investment in applications on health and safety, I would argue that the denominator really should be our nanomaterials research investment," Merzbacher said. She estimated that such a number might be $250 million annually.

Howard: NIOSH Squeezing Nanotech Research from Tight Budget

The current annual nanotech EHS budget for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is $3 million. NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard told that the $3 million "is re-directed from our base budget" and is not a new appropriation from Congress or NNI.

"In other words, we've chosen not to do something and to do nano," Howard said.

Although Howard acknowledged that $3 million is a "rounding error" for other federal agencies whose annual budgets are in the billions, he asserted that taxpayers are getting "bang for the buck" when it comes to NIOSH's nanotech EHS research. As examples of how the agency – which has seen its budget decline in recent years – has "wrung out as much money as we can" for nanotechnology research, Howard noted that NIOSH:

  • In 2005 published a strategic plan to guide its nanotech research efforts;
  • In October 2005 published "Approaches to Safe Nanotechnology: An Information Exchange with NIOSH," which the agency hopes to update each fall; and
  • Has created the Nanoparticle Information Library to help stakeholders organize and share information on nanomaterials.

"I think the taxpayers are getting good return on that investment," Howard said. " … I think that anyone doing research within NIOSH in this area would like to see the institute put more money toward [nanotech research] and I'd like to see it too. But we're trying to wring out as many dollars as we can."

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