Abstract: Take a Little Risk? Historical Analogies and the Regulation of Nanotechnology

W. Patrick McCray and Roger Eardley-Pryor


Since the mid-1990s, researchers, policy makers, and business leaders have touted nanotechnology as a key emerging technology for the twenty-first century. At the same time, nanotechnology—a slippery term with definitions ranging from an ensemble of existing instrumental techniques to a specific class of new materials to a paradigm-shattering scientific frontier—arrived accompanied by uncertainty and risk. Previous technological controversies over nuclear power, DDT, recombinant DNA, asbestos, and genetically modified organisms provided nanotechnology's proponents and opponents with examples they could mobilize as they worked to shape public perception and policy. This paper explores how and why concerns about nanotechnology's environmental, health and safety (EHS) issues moved so rapidly to the forefront of policy discussions. It also argues that the risk and regulation of previous technologies provided analogies for experts to debate the need to regulate this new emerging technology.