The Nanotechnology Challenge: Tiny Particles, Big Risks
As nanotechnology development zooms ahead, research on its effects on health and the environment lags. A new book, The Nanotechnology Challenge: Creating Legal Institutions for Uncertain Risks, edited by Northwestern law professor and IPR associate David Dana, attempts to address this gap.
The book offers views by legal scholars and social and physical scientists on how to assess the potential unknowns and risks of nanotechnology and encourages readers to envision creative “third ways” to regulate it.
“The extraordinary thing about nanomaterials is that they exhibit unusual behaviors and can do unusual things,” said Dana, who also authored several chapters. “The flip side is because they are so unusual, they may do things to the human body and the environment that we didn’t anticipate. The upside is potentially the downside.”
Dana offers the example of sunscreen. To create lotions that go on clear, zinc oxide particles are reduced between 1 and 100 nanometers. Once shrunk to this size, they could pass through the skin and travel to previously unreachable spots, such as the brain, potentially affecting human health, Dana said. Though, he points out, there are no conclusive reports about this now.
The book also examines public perception of these risks and its influence on regulatory trends. Research in a chapter by IPR associate Daniel Diermeier, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences, suggests that the public is largely ignorant about nanotechnology but nevertheless holds increasingly firm attitudes about it. Moreover, these attitudes are more likely to be shaped by psychological mechanisms than scientific arguments.
Elaborating on this topic, IPR political scientist James Druckman and his co-author Toby Bolsen of Georgia State University examine how scientific evidence links attitudes to behaviors. They conducted an experiment in which they combined a survey of citizens on their perceptions of carbon nanotubes with a follow-up survey two weeks later. In the subsequent survey, respondents answered questions framed either positively or negatively. A control group received unframed ones.
“In both events, we found that the frames drove opinions,” Druckman said, noting that people responded in a biased manner that corresponded with their earlier opinions. He also found that the embedded scientific facts did not significantly strengthen the frames, which he found troubling because “factual information seems to have no effect on the public’s views.”
The results could have significant policy implications because they suggest that new technology will only make it through regulation if people think it’s worth it.
For nanomaterials, more testing before hitting the market could cause delays in innovation and cost more money in the short term, although Dana believes stricter regulations will save money and even lives in the long run.
“A lot of literature says we just shouldn’t bother with regulation,” Dana said. “Nanotechnology development is moving too fast, and it’s too complicated, so we should just take a pass. I understand that view, but I don’t agree.”
The Nanotechnology Challenge was published by Cambridge University Press in November.
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