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April 29, 2008

GAO Testifies Before Senate Subcommittee on the Accuracy of Data Concerning Federally Funded EHS Research

Lynn L. Bergeson

On April 24, 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report entitled Nanotechnology: Accuracy of Data on Federally Funded Environmental, Health, and Safety Research Could Be Improved, which contains the testimony of Robert A. Robinson, Managing Director, Natural Resources and Environment, before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Innovation. Robinson provided a summary of GAO’s findings as reported in its March 31, 2008, report entitled Nanotechnology: Better Guidance Is Needed to Ensure Accurate Reporting of Federal Research Focused on Environmental, Health, and Safety Risks. GAO was asked to focus on: (1) the extent to which selected agencies conducted environmental, health, and safety (EHS) research in fiscal year (FY) 2006; (2) the reasonableness of the agencies’ and the National Nanotechnology Initiative’s (NNI) processes to identify and prioritize EHS research; and (3) the effectiveness of the agencies’ and the NNI’s process to coordinate EHS research.

According to NNI, in FY 2006, federal agencies devoted $37.7 million — or three percent of the $1.3 billion total nanotechnology research funding — to research primarily focused on the EHS risks of nanotechnology, according to the NNI. GAO found that about 20 percent of this total could not actually be attributed to this purpose, however. GAO states that 22 of the 119 projects identified as EHS in FY 2006 were not primarily related to understanding the extent to which nanotechnology may pose an EHS risk. Instead, many of the projects focused on how to use nanotechnology to remediate environmental damage or detect hazards not related to nanotechnology. GAO states that, at the time of its review, federal agencies and NNI were in the process of identifying and prioritizing EHS risk research needs, and the overall process they were using appeared reasonable. NNI also was engaged in an iterative prioritization effort through its Nanotechnology Environmental and Health Implications (NEHI) working group. NEHI identified five general research categories as a priority for federally funded research. GAO found that most of the research projects that were underway in FY 2006 were generally consistent with agency and NEHI priorities. NEHI released its new EHS research strategy on February 13, 2008. According to GAO, agency and NNI processes to coordinate activities related to potential EHS risks of nanotechnology have been generally effective. In its March 2008 report, GAO recommended better guidance to improve the accuracy of data reported by NNI. Although the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) asserted that it provides extensive guidance, it agreed to review how the agencies respond to the current guidance. Robinson made no new recommendations in his statement before the Subcommittee.