Brussels, 20 Dec 2005
The UK's Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has published a report on research priorities relating to the possible risks posed by nanotechnology
The report identifies three key areas where further research is needed to develop a risk management framework for nanoparticles: characterising, defining and measuring nanoparticles; understanding the impact of nanoparticles on humans and the environment, and; understanding where nanoparticles come from and how they travel through the environment, including the human body
The report focuses on a range of free engineered nanoparticles which previous reports from the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (RS/RAEng) and the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks have identified as areas of concern.
The 2004 RS/RAEng report 'Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties' concluded that there were no significant concerns at present, but highlighted areas where more research should be conducted.
Acknowledging gaps in our knowledge of the risks posed by nanoparticles to human health and the environment, the UK government committed itself to producing a report entitled 'Characterising the potential risks posed by engineered nanoparticles', which presents on-going and projected research in this area.
The document summarises the outcomes of two studies on hazard and exposure, as well as a study into current and foreseeable manufacture and uses of engineered nanoparticles in the UK. It identifies 19 research objectives and describes ongoing activities and funding opportunities to address them, noting that the entire research and funding programme will be regularly reviewed. According to Defra, research councils will welcome bids from those interested in carrying out the research.
Professor Howard Dalton, Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser, said: 'This report sets out the ambitious and forward-looking research agenda that is needed to ensure that we are able to identify and manage potential risks associated with the use of nanotechnologies. Gathering this knowledge is vitally important so that we can reap the benefits, both environmental and economic, of nanotechnology.'
There were mixed reactions to the report, however, with some experts claiming that a real programme of research in the area does not currently exist, given the lack of earmarked funds and a well defined set of research goals and priorities.
While the Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering welcomed publication of the UK government's research programme into the potential risks of nanoparticles, and the allocation of 4.85 million euro for the measurement and characterisation of nanoparticles, they stressed that the government should set aside new money for research into potential health and environmental impacts.
Professor Ann Dowling, who chaired the RS/RAEng report panel, said: 'The government has identified sound priorities for the research needed to develop safety regulations which will ensure that we fully and responsibly realise the benefits of this exciting science. But we are concerned that its approach to funding this research is rather ad hoc. Rather than strategically building a programme, with a dedicated pot of money, to explore any potential health and environmental risks associated with nanoparticles, it is primarily relying on individual research teams to come forward with proposals and compete against other research areas for funding.'
According to the two academies, this approach leaves it to chance whether or not the right research will be undertaken, running the risk that the government will fail to achieve research objectives set out in the report. Less 'exciting' but crucially important activities, such as toxicology, occupational health and environmental sciences, should not be left to the scientific community's spontaneous proposals, they argue, and specific funds should be earmarked to fill the identified knowledge gaps and carry out the necessary capacity building.
The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering also expressed concern about the apparent lack of collaboration between the government and industry to develop safety testing and public dialogue activities.