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  • Nanotech risks: UK launches US$8.5m research plan


In response to its 2004 study into the risks and benefits of nanotechnology research, the UK government announced last week (30 November) a five million pound (US$8.5 million) research plan to identify long-term environmental and health risks from the technology. 

The government says the new research programme should lead to a framework for containing any "unacceptable risks" associated with creating technologies on the scale of one-tenth of a human hair.

The 2004 study had concluded that although the short-term health risks from nanotechnology were small, little was known about the longer-term risk to human health and the environment — for example, in agriculture and food production (see Science of the small could create 'nano-divide').

The report pinpoints three main research priorities: to better understand the physical and chemical properties of nanoparticles, how people and the environment might be exposed to them — for example, whether the particles can be absorbed through the soil or groundwater — and the impact that nanoparticles could have on human health and the environment. 

"This report sets out the ambitious and forward-looking research agenda that is needed to ensure that we are able to identify and manage potential risks associated with the use of nanotechnologies," says Howard Dalton, chief scientific advisor to the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Dalton's department is responsible for preparing the report, entitled "Characterising the risks posed by engineered nanoparticles", which details the research plan.

Dalton said that knowledge about risks was "vitally important so that we can reap the benefits, both environmental and economic, of nanotechnology".

As part of the UK's wider aim to develop nanotechnologies responsibly, the report also suggests a fourth research priority into the societal and ethical dimensions of nanotechnology.

Developments in areas like genetic engineering — cloning, for example — show that scientific developments can rarely be separated from their social context.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has been given up to US$4.3million to investigate these wider social issues, and stakeholders will be consulted throughout the implementation of the research programme.

In total, the report identifies 19 research objectives and describes ways in which they could be funded. Several UK research councils are inviting grant bids from scientists, and further funding is expected both from industry and the European Commission.

The US$8.5 million brings the total spending on nanotechnology research by government, agencies and research councils in the UK to US$22.5 million.

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