This summer, I planned my vacation to Maine for the fourth week of July. I was conflicted when the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies announced a talk and document release for that week. I thought about my commitment to this blog, weighed the pros and cons (current news vs. coast of Maine, July in DC vs. coast of Maine, lunch at the Wilson Center vs. lobster roll on the coast of Maine - hmmm). I asked Vrylena Olney to go in my place. Here’s her guest blog.
While Margaret was in Maine enjoying the cooler weather, I trooped out to the Wilson Center on July 22 to hear David Rejeski and J. Clarence (Terry) Davies talk about Nanotechnology and Oversight: An Agenda for the New Administration, a report just released by the Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.
The event was packed, and as I walked in I heard one staffer saying, "…and we were afraid no one would come." There were just under 50 of us who RSVPed on the attendee list, and probably at least 80 people in the room, which means I missed out on the light lunch AND a chair, but no hard feelings. There was a mix of people—some journalists and media types, government agency people (from the EPA and NNCO, for example), a few from non-profits and environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the International Center for Technology Assessment, some students, a bunch of nano industry folks, some lawyers.
Davies, a former EPA official, spent the first half hour going over key points of the report, which outlines steps for the new administration to deal with the potential risks of nanotechnologies. There was a lot of interesting stuff, and I'm looking to spending some more time with the report (they ran out, natch, but you can check it out online at Nanotech: A Regulatory Blueprint for the Next Administration).
The gist of it is that there's an oversight vacuum right now, which is troubling, as Davies opened his talk by saying that oversight and markets are mutually necessary, and that new nano applications are coming down the pike fast. He argued that the past 30 years we've depended totally on the markets to provide oversight, and that he's seeing a shift in mood. He pointed to the housing market tanking (my words, not his) and recent salmonella scares as examples of the problems with losing sight of that interdependence between markets and oversight. The interesting thing to me was his point that the shift in mood is on the part of industry people, too, that they need some assurances that their products are safe and that oversight protects future markets for technology. As someone who works for a museum and doesn't run into too many industry people, it was a good reminder that our interests may overlap at times.
A lot of interesting points came up in the Q&A. The first point, and I don't have good notes on who said this (I was standing in a corner!), was that agencies like the EPA aren't being transparent about the work they are doing now, and that's undermining public confidence. Davies agreed, saying that public confidence in technology is dependent on public confidence in what the government is doing in terms of regulation. I wonder how and if the work we're doing plays into that. Then Jeff Young from Living on Earth (Public Radio International) asked if local level actions are helpful in pushing for better regulation. Davies said yes, gave the example of Berkeley's oversight law, and said that the impact on states is significant and individual state regulations help spur action toward federal regulations. We've encouraged our partners to connect up with local researchers, should we be encouraging them to connect up with local government, too?
Anyway, lots of food for thought, if not for lunch.