Nanotechnology risks? Ask the economists

Darrell Dvorak at points out that there’s often some expertise missing from discussions on nanotech risk:

Because nanotech operates at the molecular level, there has been much speculation about new, unknown risks of nano products and processes…

An encouraging development for a fact-based approach is that regulation has been shown to often hurt more than it helps. Led by economists skilled in empirical analysis, a body of intellectual capital has been created that demands answers to tough questions about risk and regulation, such as:

• How should we think about the trade-offs between risks and rewards of regulation, especially at the margins of public safety vs. public benefit?
• How can we improve consideration of harmful, unintended consequences that invariably accompany government attempts to regulate risk?
• What is the impact of both obvious and hidden incentives in generating and controlling risk?
• What would be the impact of much stronger punishments for violating certain regulations?
• How can we improve consideration of the entire chain of events, not just first order effects, set in motion by government attempts to regulate risk?

But, unfortunately, these questions are not so commonplace as to ensure that they are being asked, much less that any proffered answers are accurate. That’s why it’s essential that economists skilled in these matters are involved in devising regulatory solutions.

Yet, economists rarely participate in the public forums about nanotech risk and regulation.

He’s got a point. So far in these nanorisk debates I’ve heard nanotech researchers and environmentalists, but few if any economists. Let’s get the risk economists included routinely, starting now. Maybe Darrell can give us some names. —Christine

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