Three University experts gathered yesterday to discuss the risks and benefits of nanotechnology use in a panel titled “Nanotechnology–Unplugged.”
Martin Philbert, dean of the School of Public Health, Mark Banaszak-Holl, a professor of chemistry and macromolecular science and engineering at the University and Shobita Parthasarathy, an assistant professor of public policy at the University, spoke before an audience of about 20 faculty members and students at the School of Public Health’s Risk Science Center about the controversial use of nanotechnologies in the fields of science and public policy.
Seventy people also watched a live stream of the event online at the Risk Science Center’s website.
Andrew Maynard, director of the University’s Risk Science Center and the moderator of the panel, began the discussion by asking Banaszak-Holl to explain what nanotechnology is.
A nano is about three to five times bigger than an atom, Banaszak-Holl explained. He said nanos have been used for research tool innovations like the electron microscope and have also led to improvements in manufactured products like cell phones.
“Nanotechnology just isn’t about measuring and seeing,” Banaszak-Holl said. “Nanotechnology is about the ability to design, make and use things at this nano scale.”
In response to Maynard’s question about whether nanotechnology has the potential to transform science in the future, Banaszak-Holl said “the revolution’s here” already.
Nanotechnology has faced criticism from a number of scientists and politicians, who have raised questions about the health risks incurred from using nanotechnologies. Philbert said nanotechnology, like other similar materials, has positive and negative effects, depending on the amount used.
“Everything is both, in and of itself, both safe and unsafe,” Philbert said.
Nanotechnology is similar to other potentially lethal substances, but it has certain therapeutic benefits if used in small doses, according to Philbert.
Controlling nanotechnology use is only one of many issues addressed in scientific public policy, Parthasarathy said.
“The challenge of governance here is not restricted to the challenge of nanotechnology,” she said. “We have a challenge with dealing with emerging technologies and how do we go about regulating them.”
The debate on nanotechnology often centers on the differences between science-based problems and value-based problems, Parthasarathy said. Nanotechnology poses a value-based problem in the public policy arena, she said.
In response to Parthasarathy’s remarks, Banaszak-Holl said only a few members of Congress hold degrees in the sciences. Therefore, scientists themselves aren’t able to dictate policy on a national level.
Though legislators may not be scientific experts, Parthasarathy said they do look to scientists for guidance on issues like the safety of nanotechnology.
“The infrastructure of how we make regulatory decisions is one that is based heavily on what we call scientific advisory committees,” she said.
Philbert disagreed with Parthasarathy, saying politicians are often influenced by public perception rather than science.
“There is almost no connection, frequently, between the science and the ultimate decision-making because the decision makers have the direct imperative to get re-elected,” Philbert said.
Paula Lantz, chair of the Department of Health Management and Policy in the School of Public Health, asked the panelists later in the discussion what they thought about the capabilities of agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or Environmental Protection Agency to regulate nanotechnologies.
Philbert responded by saying though regulatory agencies have lost funding, new technologies have allowed them to make better decisions. The enforcement of nanotechnology is difficult considering the risks and benefits associated with its use, he added.
“We’re always engineering toward the perfect, and there is no perfect environment,” Philbert said.