The UK Government’s research programme into the potential risks of nanoparticles

As trailed in my last post, the UK government has published the first report (Characterising the risks posed by engineered nanoparticles: a first UK Government research report – a 55 page PDF) from its programme of research into the potential health and environmental risks of engineered, free nanoparticles. Or rather, it’s published a document that reveals that there isn’t really a programme of research at all, in the sense of an earmarked block of funds and a set of research goals and priorities. Instead, the report describes an ad-hoc assortment of bits and pieces of research funded by all kinds of different routes. The Royal Society’s response is sceptical, stressing that the report “reveals that no money has been specifically set aside for important research into, for example, how nanoparticles ultra small pieces of material might penetrate the skin.”

It’s clear, then, that if there is a nanotoxicity bandwagon developing (as identified by TNTlog), UK government is being pretty half-hearted about jumping on. I don’t think this is an entirely bad thing. Rather than joining some auction to declare what arbitrary percentage of their nanotechnology spend goes on toxicology, it makes sense to take a cold look at what research needs to be done (taking a realistic, hype-free view of how much of this stuff there really is in the work-place and the market), and what research is already going on. No-one gains by duplicating research, and identifying the gaps and the real needs is a good place to start.

What the government should understand, though, is that when it does identify knowledge gaps, it has to be forward in filling them. Money has to be ear-marked, and if necessary capacity has to be built. One can’t rely on the scientific market, as it were, by expecting research proposals in the required areas to come forward spontaneously. Toxicology, occupational health and environmental science are crucially important , but they are often not exciting science as that would be defined by a Research Council peer review panel.