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Posted: August 16, 2008
Minnesota nanotechnology trade association pushes its 10 year, $366m plan
(Nanowerk News) A Minnesota nanotechnology trade association is depending on what it hopes will be a favorable economic impact report to convince the Legislature to approve public investment dollars next year.
The group, MN Nano, argues that positive local economic impact from nanotechnology should be enough to garner support for its plan that calls for $366 million in public and private investment in nanotechnology in Minnesota over a 10-year period, according to its president, Darrel Gubrud.
But two recent reports argue that economic impact is only one of several factors that should be considered when assessing the value of an emerging technology like nanotechnology.
The reports, co-authored by faculty and students at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, suggest that while the economic impact and, to some extent, health and safety issues related to nanotechnology have been studied, other factors such as social, ethical and legal issues need to be explored.
That will also require a review of the current oversight and regulatory system because it is largely inadequate in managing emerging technologies like nanotechnology, said Jennifer Kuzma, associate professor at the Humphrey Institute and one of the co-authors of the reports.
“We have been focused on economic costs and benefits, and health and safety, but they are only part of the puzzle,” Kuzma said. “We’re suggesting that when you evaluate whether an oversight system is appropriate that you look at these multiple dimensions – the ethical, the social and legal and risk-based.”
Kuzma said more than 600 consumer products currently listed on the website of the Project of Emerging Nanotechnologies use nanotechnology in their production, but the public knows so little about nanotechnology that most can’t make informed choices about buying those products.
Nanotech products range from Canola Active Oil to Apagard Oral Care Toothpaste, and flash memory chips to air purifiers.
Kuzma added that for most products where the nanomaterials are attached to other products – say a tennis racket or a computer – there is less concern compared with products whose nanomaterials are free floating. For instance, many companies develop carbon nanotubes for sale to other companies to develop products.
“In laboratory studies, when you inject rats with carbon nanomaterials, they change and they are shown to damage lungs,” Kuzma said.
The challenge is that because nanotechnology has myriad applications, there is no database of companies that list which are producing free-floating carbon nanotubes in mass quantities.
To address this and make sure there is proper oversight, Kuzma said there should be a “high-level policy framework where the regulatory agencies responsible for nanotechnology get together and publish guidance documents and policies as to how they can actually oversee nanotechnology under existing laws.
“I think it needs to be industry groups working together with public health working together with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, but I think the mandate to coordinate between these groups must come from the highest levels of the state” like the governor’s office, Kuzma said.
Gubrud of MN Nano said federal agencies and industry groups are very cognizant of the health and safety issues related to nanotechnology and have studied them extensively. And local companies are cautious about handling nanomaterials, he said.
“There are dozens of companies in the U.S. that are producing carbon nanotubes and some Minnesota companies are doing lab work with respect to nanotubes, and to my knowledge they are all being extremely careful in adopting the latest mechanisms that there are for safety,” Gubrud said, whose group has consulted with Kuzma from time to time.
As an example, he pointed to a local company called TSI in Shoreview that develops instruments that can detect nano-scale materials in the air.
“Nanomaterials have existed in nature for hundreds of thousands of years and so having nanoparticles around in the atmosphere … is not something that’s an invention of the last 15 years,” Gubrud added.
Aside from safety, Kuzma said ethical issues need to be studied, too. For example, should nanomaterials be injected in soldiers to keep them awake and alert, or should athletes be injected with nanomaterials for human enhancement? The issue is one of informed consent by the public, she said.
“In that example, drugs have been used in military applications for alertness for probably at least a few years and I don’t know that that’s particularly a nanotechnology related matter,” he said. “I think if there were evidence that the social and ethical and legal issues were of equal or greater importance than the health and safety, I don’t doubt that our membership would be interested in funding directives in that fashion.”
Still, he agreed with Kuzma that you can never be overcautious in dealing with new and emerging technologies. Dale Wahlstrom, CEO of the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota, agrees as well.
Wahlstrom said that any time a new technology is evolving it’s important to understand all aspects. There is a “desire” in Minnesota to create a center comprised of public sector, private sector and academia that will study and develop knowledge about different aspects of nanotechnology, he said. However, he did not echo Kuzma’s recommendation for developing appropriate oversight.
He feels that might be a deterrent in fully utilizing the opportunity that new technologies like nanotechnology create.
“If every time we have a new dialogue around a new technology you start to turn it into a regulatory process, you kill the process,” Wahlstrom said. “I guess I think that the best approach is to form a center for knowledge development and really try to understand all the different aspects, and it should be a collaborative relationship between the academic community, the private sector and the public sector.”