The recent new focus on safety and environment isn't a death knell, just growing pains.
Have you been keeping up on recent government developments that have the nanotechnology industry in an uproar? First there was a dust-up when Clayton Teague stepped down as Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. There were rumors that the anti-nano forces had run him out. (Not true, by the way.) Then an announcement that the Food and Drug Administration would be looking at nanotechnology safety guidelines got some folks twitching. The same day, the White House released principles to guide the regulation and oversight of nanotechnology applications. That had people running for the exits.
Colleagues who've been in nanotechnology for a decade without incident were considering shutting down businesses, afraid a nano-boogieman was going to target them for billion-dollar lawsuits. Start-ups were in fear that the trickle of investment money would completely dry up. Any day I expect to see black armbands popping up in university labs in mourning over lost research grants.
So is it time to shutter the labs, find a new business, start nanotech speakeasies? I think not. How do I know?
1. The government is investing 10x as much in nano research as regulation.
The 2012 federal budget proposes $2.1 billion for the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Yes, the increase in funding for environmental health and safety topics is up to $124 million. At 38% growth, that's the second biggest percentage increase in the plans. But guess what comes in first? Nanomanufacturing at 46%, with a bottom line total of $123 million.
2. The federal EHS research is taking a responsible stance, not a radical one.
For example, the FDA guidance document explicitly states that nanotechnology products will not be prejudged as either "intrinsically benign or harmful." Are there issues to work out? Yes. The hotspot from my point of view is that they're looking at both nanomaterials under 100nm in size and those that are larger but display the properties associated with nanomaterials. We need a tighter definition -- and soon.
3. Nanotechnology works. And works. And works.
Nanotechnology is touching our lives in thousands and thousands of positive ways right now. It's the path to affordable, efficient solar power. It's making health products and cosmetics and more effective. You'll find nanotechnology in packaging, printing inks, cancer research, housewares, transportation and more.
4. Nanomaterials have been around for millions of years.
Since before the dinosaurs, soil erosion has been creating nanoparticles and the coatings on lotus leaves have been nanofilms. Nano-pigments were part of stained glass making in the 10th century. And the tires on our cars have been shedding nanomaterials since not long after the Model T. That's not to suggest we shouldn't be watchful -- asbestos and uranium are naturally occurring, too -- but it supports the wisdom of a sensible stance.
5. It's a nanotech world -- and growing.
Recent industry research projects the global nanotechnology market will show 19% growth between 2011 and 2013. In spite of some fairly draconian regulation in Europe, nanotech keeps growing there. Asia is on the rise. And guess who's slated for the biggest growth? That's right -- the U.S.
6. If they're shooting at you, you must be doing something right.
That's the phrase that comes to mind when I hear naysayers use slivers of data to proclaim "this time, we've got you." Yet, the ballyhooed catastrophes have yet to surface. That's my experience in decades as a researcher and business owner, and it matches what I hear from colleagues. New research being funded in the 2012 budget will, I suspect, simply add more results confirming those already on the books.
The real threat to achieving nanotechnology's potential isn't the unknown "them." It's our own fear. Fear that this is a witch hunt, not a reasonable conversation. Fear that politics will win out over science. If fear sends us into hiding, we lose to the people who remain in the spotlight.
The antidote for fear? Business as usual. The daily proof of our science. Innovation that changes lives. An ever-lengthening track record of success and safety. Follow that course, and everybody wins.
Scott E. Rickert is chief executive ofNanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio.