As the world’s population increases to an estimated 10 billion people by 2050, pressures on ecosystems and natural resources including air, water, and food production systems, will continue to increase and be exacerbated by climate change.
Many will turn towards new – and potentially disruptive – technologies as a path forward to securing safe and sustainable futures. What role emerging technologies will play (i.e. biotechnologies, nanotechnologies, and geoengineering) in overcoming these grand challenges, however, is an open question and will be debated in the coming years. In 2020, the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity will debate and adopt a post-2020 global biodiversity framework leading towards the 2050 Vision of “Living in harmony with nature“. The International Union for Conservation of Nature will debate a resolution on establishing principles for the evaluation and potential use of synthetic biology and gene drives and its impacts on conservation. In the U.S. 2020 will see a national election which could change the presidency and both houses of Congress.
How should technologies be evaluated? Who should decide whether they should be deployed or developed? Have we learned anything from past experiences with other emerging technologies? Previous case studies have demonstrated the importance of factoring in social and ethical values in research and innovation as well as the need to adapt and adjust risk assessment approaches and frameworks to adequately assess and communicate risk to diverse stakeholders. GES colleagues Grieger and Kuzma, collaborating with other colleagues, recently published a Commentary in Nature Nanotechnology that identified key best practices from the field of nanomaterial risk analysis that could be relevant for other emerging technologies (Nature Nanotechnology article, Behind the Story post).
With this as a background, on December 9th, a symposium was held at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Society for Risk Analysis, entitled “Risk Analysis of Engineered Nanomaterials: Where Have We Been, Lessons Learned, and Transfer of Knowledge to Other Emerging Technologies,” as a part of the Advanced Materials and Technologies Specialty Group. Five speakers highlighted their own experiences from the field of nanomaterial risk analysis that have helped shape or guide risk analysis efforts of another technologies, including advanced materials (Ede), engineered nanomaterials (Grieger), synthetic biology (Trump, Kuiken), as well as the broader field of emerging technologies used in consumer products, including 3-D printing and wearable technologies (Thomas).
The following is a brief overview of each of these presentations:
James Ede of Vireo Advisors described a newly developed health and environmental risk assessment framework for additive manufacturing technologies developed by the Department of Defense. The NanoCPT framework evaluates the safety of nanoscale materials through the collection of chemical, physical, and toxicological information used in a nanomaterial risk evaluation, using a tiered approach that incorporates decision criteria to determine if further evaluation is needed in each tier. After providing an overview of NanoCPT, Ede presented a case study that involved a carbon nanotube-enabled 3-D printing application. Ede concluded by highlighting lessons learned from applying the NanoCPT framework to 3-D printing as an emerging technology.
Khara Grieger of the GES Center highlighted five best practices from a nano-risk analysis (from Grieger et al. 2019) that may be transferred to other emerging technology fields, such as synthetic biology, climate management technologies, artificial intelligence, and others. These best practices include the following:
Promote research tailored for regulatory decision-making to reduce the lag-time between technological innovation, collection of environmental, health, and safety data, and regulatory decision-making;
Set realistic time, cost, and complexity estimates to develop risk analysis to better align stakeholder expectations;
Develop strategies to deal with uncertainties in risk analysis and decision-making, including complementary uncertainty assessments with risk evaluations and the development of dynamic risk management and governance approaches;
Develop mechanisms to share risk data while protecting privacy, confidentiality, and proprietary information to better understand underlying data that are emerging across actors and fields, and
Critically evaluate and select robust, fit-for-purpose tools for risk analysis to ensure the “right tool(s)” are selected for the purpose at hand (e.g., assessing a risk under certain conditions, choosing between alternatives, informing policy-makers).
Treye Thomasfrom the US Consumer Product Safety Commission presented on exposure and risk assessment approaches for emerging consumer technologies and materials. Thomas explained how the commercialization of new products that contain advanced materials and technologies is increasing rapidly and may significantly change the way consumers interact with products. For example, internet-connect smart products (e.g., fitness trackers), virtual reality games, and 3-D printing will allow consumers to enjoy enhanced benefits, although these products and technologies may also involve the use of emerging, advanced materials such as nanomaterials. Some consumers may have access to a range of materials in their homes through 3-D printing, where they may be able to manufacture or make products in their homes. Occupational health and safety measures would therefore require an adjustment from workplace to home settings. The National Nanotechnology Initiative has implemented an approach to responsible development of an emerging technology, and therefore could be considered as a model for establishing best practices to address safety of emerging materials in commerce. Thomas concludes the presentation with the identification of other best practices for ensuring health and safety of emerging consumer products that rely on advanced materials.
Finally, Ben Trump from the US Army Corp of Engineers and Todd Kuiken from GES Center presented on risk governance strategies of nanotechnology and synthetic biology. Trump found that in the case of nanotechnology, there were nearly two decades of technological growth without a significant discourse from social scientists, compared to the case of synthetic biology in which physical and social sciences were more involved and interlinked from the onset of technological innovation processes. He provided a number of recommendations for both fields, such as more proactive engagement with the public and regulatory communities, to foster transparent and responsible innovation processes to ensure robust risk governance measures.
Kuiken, meanwhile, explored the similarities and differences around concepts of definitions, public perceptions, consumer product inventories, barriers to entry, emergence of new actors, and how nanotechnology and synthetic biology have informed risk governance strategies. He found that the pace of development, public perceptions, and conversations about definitions and risk governance were similar between the fields. He also found that there were some key differences between these technologies, particularly surrounding funding strategies, barriers to entry, and in relation to synthetic biology, international transboundary environmental issues. Kuiken concluded with a series of governance challenges that nano and synbio share: hard to define what it actually is, governance systems are struggling to keep pace with the technological change, and questions surrounding safety, security and the environment. Key “lessons learned” from these fields are important to overcome yet how different are these from technologies of the past and what will emerge in the future? And how will the convergence of technologies impact risk assessment moving forward?
This symposium identified and discussed many of the on-going challenges to responsibly develop, innovate, and use several emerging technologies in society. The exemplified best practices and lessons learned from this symposium, among others, should be forefront in international policy debates, public dialogues, including those related to upcoming U.S. national elections, as we continue grapple with the impacts of our society’s many grand challenges including climate change, the role of emerging technologies, and our broader search for solutions.
Khara Grieger and Todd Kuiken are both Senior Research Fellows with the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at NC State University. Dr. Grieger’s work focuses on risk governance of nanotechnologies, and Dr. Kuiken’s on synthetic biology and ecological gene editing.