In a strange twist of bureaucratic overkill, Congress directed EPA to contract with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to develop a federal strategy for researching the environmental, health, and safety risks of nanotechnology.  Did you get that?  Congress is telling EPA to tell NAS to develop the research strategy.

What makes this direction curious, included in the 2008 omnibus appropriations bill signed into law in late December, is that is appears on its face to repeat work being conducted by both EPA and the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).  Congress appropriated EPA $1.9 million to contract with NAS to "develop and monitor implementation of a comprehensive, prioritized research roadmap for all federal agencies on environmental, health, and safety issues for nanotechnology."  Congress would like the contract in place by the end of March.

However, the NNI released its general strategic plan on December 31, in which it provides the broad goals and priorities of the multi-agency conglomerate.  Additionally, a second strategic plan is expected from NNI by the end of January that focuses on specifically on health and safety research.  Then, sometime in March, EPA is expected to release its nanotechnology priorities as they relate to health and environmental issues.

Finally, the NAS study was called for by a coalition of industry, trade groups, and nonprofit organizations, including the American Chemistry Council, DuPont, Environmental Defense, Dow, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.  While successfully lobbying Congress for EPA’s marching orders, one unnamed coalition member defended the call for NAS involvement by saying that the NNI’s work is not as "robust as what we would expect from NAS." 

This last statement may be the most telling–its not exactly a ringing endorsement of NNI’s work or efforts.  Clearly the various stakeholders are unhappy with the efforts and answers being provided by NNI and EPA, or they would not have gone directly to Congress for what will be the fourth study released on strategic research priorities since December 31, 2007.  My read is that the stakeholders are getting anxious for direction from federal regulators as the continuing development of nanotechnology in the absence of information is becoming unnerving to them.  And rightfully so.  I’m concerned, however, that NNI was pushed closer to the brink of irrelevance because of the vote of no confidence from the coalition.  Between that, and the duplicative work seemingly being undertaken by no less than three organizations, I’m curious to see where we’ll be when the dust all settles.  I hope the four reports do not conflict with each other, thereby adding fuel to the uncertainty fire.