Share this

The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) integrates the work of 20 federal agencies. As required by law, it develops a Strategic Plan to guide both policy and the spending of its budget, proposed at $1.723 billion for 2021. (A new NNI brochure, “Big Things from a Tiny World”, gives an overview of how molecular to atomic size materials in nano-science laboratories have been developed into myriad nanotechnology-enabled products, such as electronic components in cell phones and laptops.) In November, IATP provided input for the writers of the NNI plan. We participated in two days of the January 11-13 “2021 NNI Strategic Planning Stakeholder Workshop.”

One revelation from the workshop was how often democracy was mentioned as an input into successful federal nanotechnology programs. Nanotechnology’s contribution to NNI’s Signature Initiatives, such as water sustainability, depended not only the democratic freedom to experiment (and even to fail), but also on dialogue with the public about future research, education and workforce training and to make these technologies accessible to those who need them.  

On the first day of the workshop, Professor Pedro Alvarez of Rice University described research on “Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment” that uses nano titanium oxide “flowers” to “trap and zap” pollutants, e.g., endocrine disrupters and PFAS, untreatable by current treatment methods. He also explained the water-moving energy savings of applying this treatment technology in smaller and decentralized water treatment facilities, e.g., in rural areas, to effectively democratize water treatment. The development of the technology relies on meritocratic peer review and public funding through relevant NNI agencies. But the deployment of the technology to provide clean water to parts of the country afflicted by contaminated water realizes the commitment of a democratic government to deliver a public good to the residents of that democracy. (Read IATP’s primer on the contamination of agricultural water, including by PFAS.)

The physical infrastructure to visualize and manipulate nanomaterials and nano-devices, such as nano-electronic circuits, is too expensive for start-ups and most academic centers to afford. Democratizing access to such facilities is accomplished through a sliding scale of fees for and technical assistance to use the tools effectively in 16 federally funded, built and operated centers of National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI). These centers help convert laboratory or start-up company ideas into prototype products.

Kurt Kolasinski of West Chester University emphasized the institutional diversity of NNCI host organizations and the importance of inexpensive benchtop nanotechnology to encourage both the diversity of research and researchers. “Avoid over-reliance on big science” to address humanity’s greatest challenges, including sustainable agriculture.

NNI workshops and webinars are generally of a very high quality not only scientifically, also but pedagogically. This workshop, organized by the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, was no exception to that general rule. The plenary sessions and keynote addresses of the Stakeholder Workshop included rich content that is already archived. (If you have only a half-hour to view the workshop, Professor Sangeeta Bhatia’s survey of nano-medicine on day two includes the many contributions that resulted in the federal research foundation of the COVID-19 vaccines, nano-lipid delivery of messenger RNA, coded to lock on to and disable the coronavirus’ capacity to invade and infect cells.)

The five breakout sessions discussions were not archived, so we will report on one breakout session here, concerning the Responsible Development of nanotechnology, one of four longstanding NNI goals (while observing the workshop agreement that comments not be attributed to individuals). In past NNI Strategic Plans, “responsible development” comprised two kinds of research, one on Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) impacts of nanomaterial production and nanotechnology enabled product manufacture and use; and the other on the Ethical Legal and Societal Implications (ELSI) of nanotechnology. About 3% of the 2021 NNI budget is dedicated to EHS research, while ELSI research, as one breakout session participant noted, has been unfunded for at least a decade.

The NNI has hosted a dozen EHS webinars since 2016 but has not published a EHS strategy paper since 2011. In IATP’s response to the White House Request for Information for drafting the Strategic Plan, we recommended that the NNCO organize one or more Stakeholder Workshops to provide inputs to a new EHS Strategic Plan. IATP wrote, “One way to focus a new Strategy would be to determine any EHS research needs, including any new infrastructure, for achieving current and prospective NNI Signature Initiatives. Because each Signature Initiative involves research and development in more than one [NNI funded] agency, developing EHS Research Strategy for those Initiatives could engage multiples agencies.” Although most federal nanotechnology EHS research is funded by the National Science Foundation, that work could and should be distributed through agencies and the NNI coordinated physical and cyber-infrastructure to the private sector nano-product developers.

The workshop organizers framed the discussion of responsible development in terms of questions about EHS research only. This limitation was understandable. Why discuss ELSI issues when the President’s proposed NNI Budget included no funding for ELSI research? Furthermore, the “Quadrennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative” by the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine recommended that the NNI Strategic Plan propose ways to expedite commercialization of nanotechnology products. Couldn’t ELSI research, or, for that matter, EHS research, slow down the recommended commercialization speed-up?

At least four of the 20 responsible development breakout session participants (besides IATP) lamented the lack of NNI ELSI research and funding. One academic noted that ethics was “marginalized” in the science and engineering disciplines to the point where usually “the public is trained out of students by the time they graduate.” Another academic said that university administrators do not reward scientists and engineers for participating in the quasi-legal work of negotiating standards for nanotechnology. A third academic believed that the lack of NNI ELSI research signaled to foundations that they could exclude any social science research into nanotechnology. These are important shortcomings that need to be addressed in a more comprehensive responsible development policy and research agenda.

IATP advised the National Nanoscale Science Technology and Engineering Subcommittee (NSET) charged with drafting the Strategic Plan to reincorporate ELSI research to make nanotechnology products and markets more sustainable. We illustrated the advice with a couple of ELSI oriented research topics, such as whether Food and Drug Administration consultations about specific products have resulted in responsible development of food-related products that incorporate engineered nanoscale materials. Additionally, ELSI researchers might report on ethical and legal issues arising from the development and use of the NNI’s Signature Initiative on sensors, e.g., concerning how and when sensor-generated data should be anonymized.

ELSI research is critical to achieving the NNI’s responsible development goal. Iterative realization of that goal in NNI sponsored research, development and education requires public engagement in all aspects of NNI sponsored work. Public engagement must not be reduced to focus groups to determine how to best sell the benefits of nanotechnology to the public. Budgetary and program elimination of NNI ELSI research would be very regrettable, not the least because the NNI’s Signature Initiatives concern public goods and services that have a strong ELSI context. As the Stakeholder Workshop presentations demonstrated, ELSI research is not the only way in which NNI can carry out its commitment to responsible development, but it is essential to making the research, development and commercialization of nanotechnology products more democratically robust.

Filed under