Global conference explores strategies for risk governance


By Richard Acello

This July, delegates to an international conference will meet in Geneva, Switzerland, to consider recommendations aimed at improving the risk governance of nanotechnology. The conference, sponsored by the International Risk Governance Council (IRGC), is designed to improve the understanding and assessment of risk issues and design innovative, efficient, and balanced governance strategies.

In advance of the conference, scientists have been working on a comprehensive survey designed to provide a portrait of nanotechnology governance across 27 economies from around the globe. Experts from industry, academia, government and non-governmental organizations gathered in Geneva in January for a workshop to develop strategies and to review the IRGC’s “Survey on Nanotechnology Governance.”

The report was authored by Mike Roco, a senior adviser for the National Science Foundation, a federal agency that funds research in the United States, and Emily Litten, nanotechnology project manager for IRGC, an independent foundation in Switzerland. The Swiss Federal Agency for Development and Cooperation, the U.S. Department of State and Swiss Reinsurance Co. (Swiss Re) funded the survey.

“Societal relationships and the governance of science may either accelerate or dampen the development of emerging technologies, in particular nanotechnology,” Roco said. “Nanotechnology operates at the first level of organization of atoms and molecules, so the implications of its development will be broader than in other emerging technologies, both positive and with potentially unexpected consequences. For this reason, nanotechnology has to be addressed in the cultural, economic and societal context.”

Governance of nanotechnology is in a race with development that has accelerated as applications such as nanocoatings become more sophisticated. Those applications may soon be leapfrogged by second-generation “active nanostructures,” such as nanobiotech assemblies, according to Roco.

“In the last two or three years, industry has entered nanotechnology in a significant way,” Roco said. “It has become a subject of international competition and the public is a lot more aware of its development.”

The Roco-Litten report targets deficits in nanotechnology governance. Its recommendations fall into four categories of risk research, stakeholder engagement, risk communication, and governance approaches.

Should a “supranational” governance policy for nanotech products - one that involves a number of nations - be adopted by the IRGC, it would have to overcome traditional cultural differences to R&D in the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. operates on a “risk assessment” model that assumes all risks cannot be known in advance; Europe is more likely to embrace a “principle of precaution” approach that seeks to discover all the consequences of nanotechnology prior to its widespread use.

Prior to the IRGC’s July meeting, Roco said, the group hopes to arrive at a consensus on the types of governance applicable to each stakeholder group and issue final recommendations by the fall of 2006. Though an international scheme of governance is destined to encounter nationalist, competitive appetites for nanotech development, a U.S.-based environmentalist said she believes it’s worth the effort. “Markets respond to demand, but they also respond to rejection,” said Jennifer Sass, senior scientist in health and environmental programs with Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. “Good governance approaches are consistent with good marketing and business strategies. It’s essential they go hand in hand.”

Four focus areas for recommendations

  • Risk research recommendations include advancing studies of hazard, exposure and risk of nanoproducts; requiring input on the environmental, health and safety impacts to research and development projects; developing specific plans for environmental impact, chemical toxicity and pollution control; and “green” design and manufacturing, among others.
  • Recommended stakeholder engagements include regular workshops; social scientist participation at the R&D level; and international dialogue between ethical advisory committees.
  • Communication of risk recommendations seek a balanced disclosure of positive and negative evidence; encouragement of independent sources of information; communication of secondary unanticipated consequences; and periodical re-evaluation of risk to be disseminated to the public.
  • Governance approaches include a “supranational body” to supervise international rules; a role for the United Nations in resolving conflicting national policies; self-regulation through voluntary peer review of decision making processes; government labeling of nano-related products; and national, international and supranational cohesiveness on regulatory schemes, definitions and nomenclatures, best practices, common assessment policies and testing periods.