Definitions for Nanotechnology Inform EU Citizens as much as Regulatory Framework

Yesterday I attended EuroNanoForum 2011 in Budapest, Hungary, which marks the fifth running of this biennial event dating back to 2003.

The Forum serves as a kind of platform from which the European Commission can assess and trumpet its nanotechnology capabilities.

As anyone who has read this blog and my contributions to the TechTalk blog over the years knows, this regional mentality to the development of nanotechnology strikes me as kind of missing the point of how nanoscience and later nanotechnology comes to be developed. But it seems that governments forking out funds for these kinds of shindigs is what really keeps them going, so I suppose they can do whatever they want. It’s their party after all.

The conference had organized a special day for journalists that included a press conference with the plenary speakers that included among others Michael Grätzel, the discoverer of dye-sensitized mesoscopic oxide particles for use in solar cells (I interviewed him and will blog on that tomorrow) and Rudolf Strohmeier, Deputy Director General, Directorate General for Research & Innovation for the European Commission.

Since Mr. Strohmeier is a self-described regulator, I thought it might be worth asking him about the wisdom of embarking on a quest to define what nanotechnology is before establishing a regulatory framework. I also thought I might check in to see where they’re at now in the rather lengthy process.

For those who might like a small primer on the topic, the EU believed it necessary to define what nanotechnology is before developing regulations for it and it all seemed to make sense until the process got stuck in the mud on the issue of “how much” or “how many” nanoparticles.

At the time I first came across the imbroglio, it just seemed all a bit silly. Even if they could determine whether the risk of nanoparticles came from either the number of nanoparticles or the weight of the nanoparticles in a material, it wouldn't really seem to sort out whether said material was of any risk.

But it took an article from Andrew Maynard over at the Risk Science Blog for me to see how wrong-headed the EU's approach really is. By shoehorning a definition that will work for regulators we may be squeezing out science from the process.

As Maynard concludes:

“Five years ago, I was a strong proponent of developing a regulatory definition of nanomaterials.  Today, with the knowledge we now have, I think we need to start thinking more innovatively about how we identify new materials that slip through the regulatory net – whatever we decide to call them.  Only then will we have a hope of developing science-grounded regulation that protects people while supporting sustainable development.”

Below is an audio recording I made of my exchange with Mr. Strohmeier. Interestingly, according to him, the definition was necessary for educating EU citizens as much as for developing regulations. Patrick Vittet-Philippe, the Press and Information Officer for DG Research and Innovation of the European Commission, makes an additional comment at the end of the recording.

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In fairness, I didn't really get a chance to follow up with Mr. Strohmeier to see if he could see the problems that arise when you arbitrarily arrive at a definition that may not always reflect the latest science on the topic. Nonetheless, I can't help but think that a definition that is as much about mollifying the public as it is about good science has inherent risks itself.

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Nanoclast

IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

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