It looks like the US is heading for some serious action on addressing the safe development and use of nanotechnology-enabled materials, products and processes in 2011.  Reading through the just-released National Nanotechnology Initiative’s (NNI) Supplement to the President’s 2011 budget [PDF, 1.2 MB], there are some noteworthy inclusions:

  • The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is requesting $15 million in 2011 to address nanotechnology environment, safety and health issues.  This is the first time that the agency has been listed in the NNI budget supplement as requesting nanotechnology-specific funding.  Previously hobbled in its approach to supporting the responsible development of nanotechnology because of a lack of funding, this should go a long way to help the agency get on top of critical oversight-related questions.  The requested funds will support laboratory and product testing capacity, scientific staff development and training, and collaborative and interdisciplinary research to address product characterization and safety.
  • The US Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) also joins the FDA in being part of the NNI budget cross-cut for the first time since the NNI was formed.  For 2011, the CPSC is requesting a much-needed $2.2 million to allow it to participate with other agencies in researching safety aspects of nanomaterials use in consumer products.  Planned work includes developing protocols to assess the potential release of airborne nanoparticles from various consumer products and to determine their contributions to human exposure; determining whether nanomaterials can be used for performance improvement in sports safety equipment such as helmets and kneepads without creating other health hazards; and expanding consumer product testing using scientifically credible protocols to evaluate the exposure potential from nanosilver in consumer products, with special emphasis on exposures to young children.
  • The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is requesting $16.5 million for nanotechnology safety research in 2011; over 5 times more than the agency’s 2006 nanotech budget, and $7 million above the estimated 2010 budget.  NIOSH has been leading the charge on developing safe workplace practices for handling engineered nanomaterials in recent years – and all on a shoestring budget.  This significant increase in funding should help the agency address critical research needs it been struggling to cover adequately, including much needed work on exposure measurement and characterization.
  • The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) budget for nanotechnology safety research is set to double, going from an estimated $3.6 million in 2010 to a requested $7.3 million in 2011.  The agency will target its nanotechnology safety program to measuring the dynamic physico-chemical and toxicological properties of key nanomaterials and the release of these nanomaterials during manufacturing processes and from products throughout full product life cycles.

When requests from other agencies are included, the 2011 budget request for targeted nanotechnology safety research across the federal government for 2011 comes to $116.9 million – three times the amount invested in 2006.

This is an extremely welcome move, and demonstrates that the US government is committed to investing in research that will underpin the development of responsible nanotechnology.

Back in 2006, I estimated that the US government needed to invest at least $106 million per year in research addressing short term nanotechnology safety issues.  More recently in 2008, I set out funding options for addressing critical nanotechnology safety needs – arguing that between $20 million and $100 million per year should be invested over and above existing funding at the time (around $60 million per year).  While I can’t take credit for the apparent convergence between recommendations and budget requests here, it is gratifying to see agency-wide investment come closer to what has been suggested is needed in order to make headway in underpinning responsible nanotechnology.

Interestingly, budget requests for five key agencies align reasonably closely with those 2008 recommendations.

EPA, NIH (specifically, the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences) and NIOSH requests are not too far from what I estimated as a compromise research investment option that lay somewhere between the minimum and the ideal.  What is particularly encouraging though is the requests for NIST and FDA, which far exceed these estimated budgets.

Of course, these requests only tell half the story.  The other half concerns how the funds are spent, and whether they will enable significant progress to be made towards developing responsible uses of nanotechnology.  In the past, the NNI has been criticized for not having a robust nanotechnology safety research strategy and for being weak on supporting targeted safety research within mission-driven agencies.  While the jury is still out on the strategy, there is no doubt that the 2011 marks a significant shift towards supporting safety research within mission-driven agencies.  In 2006, 21% of the nanotechnology environment, safety and health federal research budget was associated with EPA, NIOSH and NIST. for instance  In 2011, that figure is projected to rise to 37%.

We’re not out of the woods yet on ensuring we have the information needed to develop and use new nanotechnology-based materials and products safely.  But it looks like the US is making progress.  And that’s good news for anyone hoping to see the emergence of strong nanotechnology-based solutions to a whole host of challenges.

Andrew Maynard