A Call For Stepping Up “Risk Science”

U. Michigan Photo(NHI Nanoblog) Andrew Maynard has been thinking about nanotechnology for a decade, both as a scientist and as a policy wonk. As he looks ahead at the next several decades, he says one of the most difficult problems lies in helping the public understand what scientists are even talking about—and what they should, and shouldn’t, fear from the burgeoning field.

“What we’ve ended up with is not nanotechnology as a science, or as a discipline, but nanotechnology as a brand,” Maynard said. “You can’t ask the question, ‘Is a brand safe?’ That’s not a question you can answer. You end up trying to answer a question like, ‘How does yellow taste?’”

Maynard, who recently became the first permanent director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan, says nanotechnology—the science of using really, really small stuff to do often amazing things, using tiny particles with super-properties to make new consumer products and medicines—needs to be explained better. Part of that process, he said, is creating a new way to understand the risks of nanomaterials, a key part of his new job.

“We need to have a set of criteria that help us understand whether a new material really does present a new risk to human health, and if it does, how we begin to address that risk,” he said.

It’s entirely possible, he said, that an innovative new material won’t pose any harm to people, animals or the environment—and just as possible that a new material that’s not that innovative could be a real problem. Figuring that out is essential, he said.

“We can then begin to have a science-based discussion about what do you do about it,” Maynard said. “That leads you on the route of starting from the side of the evidence…without getting all caught up in the nanotechnology brand.”

Maynard, who has worked for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the National Nanotechnology Initiative, wants to do more than just look at nano-based applications at Michigan (he also writes an interesting and engaging blog. Plenty of other emerging technologies are crying out for a revamped risk-assessment framework, he said. But nano questions are an obvious starting point.

The biggest challenge that’s not addressed by traditional risk protocols, he said, is the speed of development.

“Stuff is entering production and hitting the street before we have enough information,” he said. “We’re being forced into a position where we’re having to make decisions about whether something is going to affect people’s health or safety without having the information that we need. There’s no way that we can sit back and wait for the information to be generated.”

Maynard wants to use the center to bring in scientists from multiple disciplines—including social sciences such as economics—to examine risk in a way that’s both informed by data and responsive to the larger social needs. He said that means incorporating the people who are affected by these decisions as well as the researchers, regulators and businesspeople who are making them.

The rise of social media means information spreads faster and in different ways, Maynard said. As a result, he added, it’s no longer possible for governments and industry to avoid engaging the public as they make choices.

Maynard offered nano-based drugs as an example. If doctors can tell patients in detail about the risks and benefits of a particular treatment, patients might choose to take on additional risk.

So, what does Maynard worry about with nanotechnology? He said carbon nanotubes “are always the ones that keep me awake at night,” not because they’re inherently dangerous but because there are major unanswered questions. He said indications on many other nanomaterials are that they’re relatively benign, but “there are indications that we still desperately need to do more research.”

Maynard said it will take two or three years to ramp up the Michigan center. There’s plenty to chew on, and more is always coming. New technologies can’t be understood as easily as chemicals and other compounds that scientists and regulators are used to working with, so it’s time to forge a different path.

“Coming from my background with nanotechnology, looking forward over the next 20 years, this is an approach that’s just not going to work,” he said.

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