Risk analysis and Technology assessment

Nanotechnology offers possibilities to increase the quality of life. At the same time the past has shown us that ‘unknowns’ about potential human, environmental and societal risks are raised. Attempts to address these ‘unknowns’ are generally carried out in the privacy of discussions about risks.

1 Risk and technology assessment

However, proceeding in this way will lead to questions being raised about safety issues that come along with innovations at too late a stage of innovation, and hinder the full exploitation of potential benefits. Authorities and industry want to know which information is pivotal to assess whether a nanomaterial or nanotech application is safe.

To ascertain whether a nanomaterial or nanotech application is safe smart approaches are required to reduce these uncertainties to acceptable levels as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the interaction between innovators and those dealing with these issues should be improved in order to allow safety and societal discussions keep better pace with innovation processes. An interdisciplinary approach is required, with research that pushes boundaries, and maps out existing risk analyses of effects in the arena of health, safety and the environment.

This theme contains the following programmes:

1A Human health risks
1B Environmental risks
1C Technology assessment

The two sections within this theme are Risk analysis and Impact on society. The objective of the risk analysis is to gather information, which leads to the development of an efficient assessment strategy and to apply this in various research themes (for example, nanomedicine, clean water). Universally practicable results from different studies are applied. In addition to this, the impact of nanotechnology on society plays a key role. This helps bridge the gap between scientifically innovative research and societal impact. The realisation of this objective is a major challenge for nanoscientists, technologists, industry, policy makers, and societal parties. An interdisciplinary approach is required, with research that pushes boundaries, and maps out existing risk analyses of effects in the arena of health, safety and the environment.

1A Human health risks

Insight into the potential human health risks posed by manufactured nanoparticles (MNPs) is essential for sustainable development and safe use of innovative products based on these structures. At present, however, various information gaps exist on the intrinsic toxic properties (hazard), the potential human exposure and the relationship between exposure and health effects (risk). This programme aims at developing approaches and methodology to obtain better insight into the potential risks of MNPs and nanomaterials to workers and consumers.

Five research topics have been selected: risk assessment, detection, exposure, bioavailability and toxicity. These topics and the content of the projects were based on their priority for applied risk assessment. The new approaches and tools to be developed in the program aim at 1) describing responsible uses for worker and consumer , and 2) rapid and valid differentiation between MNPs with low or high risk potential in the early phase of product development. This program will be strongly linked with other themes in the NanoNextNL program, particularly where new particles and materials will be synthesized, such as food, nanomaterials and nanomedicine.

Programme Director: dr. ir. H. (Hans) Bouwmeester (Wageningen UR)

Watch young researcher Hedwig Braakhuis (RIVM) presenting her phd research on health effects of inhaling nano particles
Youtube link

1B Environmental risks

This programme aims at understanding and assessing potential environmental risks of manufactured nanoparticles and nanomaterials (MNP). Nanotechnology has enormous technological and economic potential. To take full economic and societal advantage of these opportunities, it is crucial to understand and effectively manage potential environmental risks of these materials. Any misconception on environmental risks may seriously hamper application of nanotechnology.

Currently, understanding on environmental risks posed by MNP is largely lacking. This programme aims at understanding and predicting emission routes, environmental fate processes, exposure of organisms in the ecosystem, and (eco)toxicity of nanoparticles. For this purpose, analytical methods to determine MNP environmental matrices are developed and applied. Furthermore, the obtained knowledge will be applied to adapt the current environmental risk assessment for MNP.

Programme Director:
Prof. dr. Annemarie van Wezel (KWR Water B.V.)

1C Technology assessment

Anticipation on societal embedding of nanotechnology aims to bridge the gap between the world of science and innovation on the one hand and societal (including broader economic) aspects on the other hand. This is a practical challenge for nanoscientists, technologists, industry, policy makers and societal actors. It is also a challenge for understanding and research, where contributions from different disciplines are necessary, often in interdisciplinary collaboration.

The programme encompasses science and technology studies, innovation studies, evolutionary economics, marketing and communication studies, political science, governance studies, law and ethics. There will be interesting complementarities with ‘risk’ studies which anticipate on health, safety and environmental effects. These complementarities will be actively pursued.

The programem will do frontier research, for example in new ways of assessing potential effects of nanotechnology developments and their embedding in society. Socio-technical scenario methods, drawing on “endogenous futures” and co-evolution of technology, society and ethics are one important approach. Another example of frontier research is the study of various “soft” law and de facto governance approaches, which may eventually link up with the study of public and stakeholder perceptions of nanotechnology which feed into perceptions of legitimacy of governance and regulation.

The relevance of the programme relates to different audiences: nanoscientists and other inhabitants of the world of nanotechnology including industry; policy makers and perhaps also politicians and opinion leaders (and media); civil society actors. The programme will actively pursue interactions with the first audience, nanoscientists and other inhabitants of the world of nanotechnology, and exploit opportunities to reach the other audiences.

The programme consists of three clusters:

  • Cluster A studies the dynamics of scientific and technological developments and inquires into their sectoral and institutional embedding and impacts (economic and otherwise) in society.
  • Cluster B starts with society, and includes public perception and public engagement with nanotechnology developments.
  • Cluster C focuses on governance questions that are urgent for regulatory and ethical embedding of nanotechnologies

Programme Director:
Prof. dr. ir. Harro van Lente (Maastricht University)