How Risk and Regulation Can Shape the Development of Nanotechnologies

Noted expert on risk and regulation in nanotech offers views on how they impact innovation

3 min read

How Risk and Regulation Can Shape the Development of Nanotechnologies

After my examination at the beginning of this week  on how nanotechnology might help address the cleanup of the oil spill in the Gulf, I did a short interview for Spectrum’s Podcast series on the same subject.

I was posed a question in the interview that I had not really considered when composing my blog post: What if governments required by a certain date in the future that oil companies would need to have developed materials and/or technologies that would significantly improve our ability to clean up the mess caused by oil spills?

The example given for this kind of government mandated innovation was regulations imposed on car manufacturers for improved emissions or efficiency.

It was an interesting question to me because I am continually confronted with the prospect that nanotechnology itself must be regulated not that governments might require its use.

On the contrary, it has seemed recently that the predominant attitude towards emerging technologies is that they cause more problems than they solve. We may even be seeing examples of this in the Gulf oil spill where it appears that the chemical dispersants being used by BP may be causing more damage to the wildlife than the oil.

I was further spurred to reexamine the seeming failure of technology to come to the rescue by Tim Harper, who I interviewed for my original piece, and who added some thoughts of his own over at his TNTLog to the subject. The question seemed to be: If we have the technologies, why don’t we use them?

To get an answer to this question, I thought I would ask Harper’s colleague in a recent proposal to the World Economic Forum on how to address the problems of innovation, Professor Andrew Maynard

Professor Maynard is a noted thought leader on the the roles risk, regulation and innovation play in nanotechnology through his popular blog 2020 Science and has recently moved on from his position as Chief Scientist at the Project on Emerging Technologies to take on the role of Director for Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. And I put to him, what is the relationship between risk, regulation and innovation when we look at the example of how nanotechnology can be applied to the oil spill crisis in the Gulf?

“There's a myth that technology innovation can solve all our problems,” argues Maynard  “And to back it up, there's a long string of examples of where technological breakthroughs have made life better - treating disease, providing energy, improving access to clean water and nutritious food, and so on.  Yet the real benchmark for whether we are getting technology innovation right is not the success stories, but the failures.”

According to Maynard, an example of one of these failures is the oil spill in the Gulf.

“Despite all of our investment in technologies like nanotechnology and others, why are there no clear solutions to fixing the leak?” asks Maynard. “It's not that the science isn't there - there are many potential routes to addressing such spills embedded in areas such as nanotechnology, biotech and synthetic biology, but the drivers, the incentives and the pathways to transform scientific advances into beneficial technologies are lacking.”

Maynard points out that what is currently missing at a national and global level is incentives, frameworks and pathways to translate new science into effective solutions; enabling technology innovation to address the problems that matter, rather than those that are merely convenient or profitable.

And along the lines of the proposal that both he and Harper presented to the World Economic Forum, Maynard has a framework by which this can be achieved, which has at least three guiding principles:
  • Strategic foresight
  • Developing effective Incentives and mechanisms
  • Rethinking the relationship between risk, uncertainty and sustainable innovation

According to Maynard, you need strategic foresight to provide a clear and unbiased assessment on challenges where technology innovation is needed.

“This should draw on the perspective of all stakeholders - including members of the public,” says Maynard.  “It should be grounded in social and economic need - including preparations for dealing with abrupt and catastrophic events.   And it should be realistic - considering areas where there is a reasonable chance of science translating into innovative solutions, given appropriate support.”

But Maynard recognizes that once we have developed a strong strategy, we will need to develop new types of incentives that can lead to solutions that are in fact needed by society. He even acknowledges that to date that the innovation landscape does not favor strategic, responsible and sustainable innovation. “But there is no reason why it shouldn't - if the appropriate policies were developed, barriers adjusted and incentives created,” he adds.

“Developing a new innovation landscape for the 21st century will not be easy,” according to Maynard. “But it is essential if new science is to be translated into new solutions to the many challenges facing global society.”

It seems that if we do not reevaluate our system of innovation we are likely to be facing another man-made tragedy that we could have ameliorated or even avoided with technologies that we developed under such a framework.

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