An updated version of the National Nanotechnology Initiative’s (NNI) Strategic Plan was released last month. NNI’s first Strategic Plan was published in December 2004; The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act requires the plan to be updated every three years. The new version just made it in under the wire.
As our readers may be aware, NNI receives input on nanotechnology issues from twenty-five federal agencies, thirteen of which have their own nano-specific budgets. NNI, on the otherhand, does not have its own budget, but rather "influences" federal spending through its member agencies. One of the four primary goals highlighted in the Strategic Plan is to "support [the] responsible development of nanotechnology," which NNI breaks down into two sub-components: (i) environmental, health and safety (EHS) research; and (ii) research regarding ethical, legal, and societal implications (ESLI). A short summary of the key EHS points found in the Strategic Plan follows after the break.
Regarding EHS research, NNI’s strategy focuses on planning and coordinating federal research activities, leveraging research through cross-agency collaboration, and periodically reviewing federal research needs. NNI’s main goal in this area is to identify research needs and "pursue paths" to meet those needs. To this end, NNI has already assessed nano-related EHS research needs and published a prioritization document to which the Strategic Plan refers in passing. The Strategic Plan, however, could benefit from explaining the actual findings of the prioritization document and at least commenting on the widespread criticism that document has drawn. Addressing critics is left for another day, as NNI indicates that a "document that describes the NNI strategy for addressing the identified priorities for nanotechnology-related EHS research is in preparation." This new document is highly anticipated. No matter what it says, it is likely to face criticism. NNI should take its time and make sure the document is as thorough as possible.
Beyond identifying EHS research needs, the Strategic Plan provides several examples of recent successful federal collaboration on nanotechnology issues: (i) the joint program by EPA, DOE and NSF started in 2005 to research environmental fate, transport, transformation, and bioavailability of nanoscale materials; (ii) the joint program by NIEHS (NIH), EPA and NIOSH initiated in 2007 to research systemic, cellular, and molecular responses to engineered nanoscale materials; and (iii) the recent joint solicitation by NSF and EPA for proposals to create a Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology. On this last issue, the Strategic Plan should have explained the scope and funding involved in creating the proposed Center ($25 million over five years), which is no small commitment.
The Strategic Plan further addresses difficulties presented by measuring and monitoring potential workplace exposure to nanoscale materials. NNI explains existing techniques are not well developed, are not readily available, cannot be used for all nanoscale materials, do not cover all necessary material parameters, and are expensive and time consuming. While the Strategic Plan identifies the need to solve this problem, it does not provide any potential answers, cost estimates, or developmental timelines in this regard.
Regarding nanotoxicology issues, the Strategic Plan explains some of the difficulties in predicting the biocompatibility and/or toxicity of various nanoscale materials in humans and the environment. These issues have been well-developed in other federal documents. NNI explains the need to develop predictive models for nanotoxicology testing purposes and standardized nanoscale materials to ensure consistent EHS testing results.
Unlike the original 2004 Strategic Plan, the 2007 version separately addresses ethical, legal, and societal implications because of recent increased public attention given to the issue. Federal efforts in this area primarily consist of funding two NSF ELSI research centers. The Strategic Plan, however, does little to describe those actual programs. Finally, NNI stresses the importance of its website — www.nano.gov — in public communications efforts related to ELSI issues.