More on US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and EHS research strategy

In my Oct, 18, 2011 posting I noted that the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) would be holding a webinar on Oct. 20, 2011 to announce an environmental, health, and safety (EHS) research strategy for federal agencies participating in the NNI. I also noted that I was unable to register for the event. Thankfully all is not lost. There are a couple of news items on Nanowerk which give some information about the research strategy. The first news item, U.S. government releases environmental, health, and safety research strategy for nanotechnology, from the NNI offers this,

The strategy identifies six core categories of research that together can contribute to the responsible development of nanotechnology: (1) Nanomaterial Measurement Infrastructure, (2) Human Exposure Assessment, (3) Human Health, (4) Environment, (5) Risk Assessment and Risk Management, and (6) Informatics and Modeling. The strategy also aims to address the various ethical, legal, and societal implications of this emerging technology. Notable elements of the 2011 NNI EHS Research Strategy include:

  • The critical role of informatics and predictive modeling in organizing the expanding nanotechnology EHS knowledge base;
  • Targeting and accelerating research through the prioritization of nanomaterials for research; the establishment of standardized measurements, terminology, and nomenclature; and the stratification of knowledge for different applications of risk assessment; and
  • Identification of best practices for the coordination and implementation of NNI interagency collaborations and industrial and international partnerships. “The EHS Research Strategy provides guidance to all the Federal agencies that have been producing gold-standard scientific data for risk assessment and management, regulatory decision making, product use, research planning, and public outreach,” said Dr. Sally Tinkle, NNI EHS Coordinator and Deputy Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO), which coordinates activities of the 25 agencies that participate in the NNI. “This continues a trend in this Administration of increasing support for nanotechnology-related EHS research, as exemplified by new funding in 2011 from the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission and increased funding from both the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

The other news item, Responsible development of nanotechnology: Maximizing results while minimizing risk, from Sally Tinkle, Deputy Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office and Tof Carim, Assistant Director for Nanotechnology at OSTP (White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) adds this,

Core research areas addressed in the 2011 strategy include: nanomaterial measurement, human exposure assessment, human health, environment, risk assessment and management, and the new core area of predictive modeling and informatics. Also emphasized in this strategy is a more robust risk assessment component that incorporates product life cycle analysis and ethical, legal, and societal implications of nanotechnology. Most importantly, the strategy introduces principles for targeting and accelerating nanotechnology EHS research so that risk assessment and risk management decisions are based on sound science.

Progress in EHS research is occurring on many fronts as the NNI EHS research agencies have joined together to plan and fund research programs in core areas. For example, the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health have researched the safety of nanomaterials used in skin products like sunscreen; the Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Product Safety Commission are monitoring the health and environmental impacts of products containing silver nanoparticles, and National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has recommended safe handling guidelines for workers in industries and laboratories.

Erwin Gianchandani of the Computing Community Consortium blog focuses, not unnaturally, on the data aspect of the research strategy in his Oct. 20, 2011 posting titled, New Nanotechnology Strategy Touts Big Data, Modeling,

From the EHS Research Strategy:

Expanding informatics capabilities will aid development, analysis, organization, archiving, sharing, and use of data that is acquired in nanoEHS research projects… Effective management of reliable, high-quality data will also help support advanced modeling and simulation capabilities in support of future nanoEHS R&D and nanotechnology-related risk management.

Research needs highlighted span “Big Data”…

Data acquisition: Improvements in data reliability and reproducibility can be effected quickly by leveraging the widespread use of wireless and video-enabled devices by the public and by standards development organizations to capture protocol detail through videos…

Data analysis: The need for sensitivity analysis in conjunction with error and uncertainty analysis is urgent for hazard and exposure estimation and the rational design of nanomaterials… Collaborative efforts in nanomaterial design [will include] curation of datasets with known uncertainties and errors, the use of sensitivity analysis to predict changes in nanomaterial properties, and the development of computational models to augment and elucidate experimental data.

Data sharing: Improved data sharing is a crucial need to accelerate progress in nanoscience by removing the barriers presented by the current “siloed” data environment. Because data must be curated by those who have the most intimate knowledge of how it was obtained and analyzed and how it will be used, a central repository to facilitate sharing is not an optimal solution. However, federating database systems through common data elements would permit rapid semantic search and transparent sharing over all associated databases, while leaving control and curation of the data in the hands of the experts. The use of nanomaterial ontologies to define those data elements together with their computer-readable logical relationships can provide a semantic search capability.

…and predictive modeling:

Predictive models and simulations: The turnaround times for the development and validation of predictive models is measured in years. Pilot websites, applications, and tools should be added to the NCN [Network for Computational Nanotechnology] to speed collaborative code development among relevant modeling and simulation disciplines, including the risk modeling community. The infrastructure should provide for collaborative code development by public and private scientists, code validation exercises, feedback through interested user communities, and the transfer of validated versions to centers such as NanoHUB… Collaborative efforts could supplement nanomaterial characterization measurements to provide more complete sensitivity information and structure-property relationships.

Gianchandani’s post provides an unusual insight into the importance of data where research is considered. I do recommend more of his posting.

Dr. Andrew Maynard on his 2020 Science blog has posted as of Oct. 20, 2011 with a comparison of the original draft to the final report,

Given the comments received, I was interested to see how much they had influenced the final strategy.  If you take the time to comment on a federal document, it’s always nice to know that someone has paid attention.  Unfortunately, it isn’t usual practice for the federal government to respond directly to public comments, so I had the arduous task of carrying out a side by side comparison of the draft, and today’s document.

As it turns out, there are extremely few differences between the draft and the final strategy, and even fewer of these alter the substance of the document.  Which means that, by on large, my assessment of the document at the beginning of the year still stands.

Perhaps the most significant changes were on chapter 6 – Risk Assessment and Risk Management Methods. The final strategy presents a substantially revised set of current research needs, that more accurately and appropriately (in my opinion) reflect the current state of knowledge and uncertainty (page 66).  This is accompanied by an updated analysis of current projects (page 73), and additional text on page 77 stating

“Risk communication should also be appropriately tailored to the targeted audience. As a result, different approaches may be used to communicate risk(s) by Federal and state agencies, academia, and industry stakeholders with the goal of fostering the development of an effective risk management framework.”

Andrew examines the document further,

Comparing the final strategy to public comments from Günter Oberdörster [professor of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester in NY state] on the draft document. I decided to do this as Günter provided some of the most specific public comments, and because he is one of the most respected experts in the field.  The specificity of his comments also provided an indication of the extent to which they had been directly addressed in the final strategy.

Andrew’s post is well worth reading especially if you’ve ever made a submission to a public consultation held by your government.

The research strategy and other associated documents are now available for access and the webinar will be available for viewing at a later date. Go here.

Aside, I was a little surprised that I was unable to register to view the webinar live (I wonder if I’ll encounter the same difficulties later). It’s the first time I’ve had a problem viewing any such event hosted by a US government agency.

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