white-house-south-2007-djWhen it comes to new technologies, government goals are to both encourage innovation and assure the safety of the public.  Achieving the right balance between these goals is often a challenge.

In March 2011, the heads of executive departments and agencies in the federal government received a memo from the Office of Science Technology and Policy, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and the U.S. Trade Representative elucidating these goals.  Nanotechnology was in the forefront of their thoughts and was mentioned specifically in the first sentence of the memo.  The memo announced the development of broad principles by the White House Emerging Technologies Interagency Policy Coordinating Committee (ETIPC), emphasizing the need for “not only coordinated research and development but also appropriate and balanced oversight.”

The list of broad factors in pursuit of these goals, in the order presented in the memo, is:

●  Scientific Integrity

            ○  Use of best available scientific evidence

            ○  New information should be developed and taken into account

●  Public Participation

            ○  Promoting accountability

●  Communication

            ○  Communicate potential risks and benefits of the technologies to the public

●  Benefits and costs

●  Flexibility

○  To accommodate new information regarding the technologies and their applications

●  Risk assessment and risk management

            ○  Goal of consistency across agencies and across technologies

●  Coordination

            ○  Among agencies, with state authorities, and with stakeholders

●  International cooperation

●  Approach to Regulation

On the subject of regulation, decisions should be based on “the best reasonably obtainable scientific, technical, economic, and other information.”  The memo recommends a risk-utility balancing approach to regulation, and expressly states that sometimes the option will be simply not to regulate.  There is mention of protection of health and the environment, but always as part of a balanced equation with innovation.

These are all appropriate goals.  For each one, however, achieving an appropriate and effective balance will be difficult and time consuming.  In the aggregate, it will mean some considerations will likely be placed on the back burner while others are advanced.  Agencies should be careful not to leave the health and safety concerns behind in the interests of supporting technological innovation.  Regulators should not allow the technology to get too far ahead of risk assessment.  Accordingly, promoting risk assessment should be a major priority.

Perhaps the most important principle is this:  Proceed in such a manner so that there will be no regrets.


The memorandum is available at