An EU project to establish a European Observatory on Nanotechnologies is seeking to address the lack of objective and independent information on nanotech for policymakers, industry and investors.

The ObservatoryNANO project was launched as a first step on the way to establishing a permanent European Observatory on Nanotechnologies. Once established, it would provide "ongoing, independent support to decision-makers," according to the consortium.

Launched in April 2008, the project will be funded for four years from the EU's Seventh Framework Programme for Research (FP7) and has a total budget of €4 million. The project consortium, led by the UK Institute of Nanotechnology (IoN), brings together partners from different fields of application of nanotech. Partners vary from a Danish nanoethics centre to the French atomic energy commission (CEA), and from the Technical University of Darmstadt to the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). 

The consortium will analyse current nanotech trends and expectations regarding public and private roadmaps and funding strategies and examine patents and published company data. In addition to scientific and economic analysis, the project partners will assess ethical and societal issues related to nanotech and its impact on health and the environment, as well as standardisation and other legislative issues.

Nanotechnology, which involves studying and working with matter on an ultra-small scale, is widely perceived as one of the key technologies of the 21st century, with the potential to grow into a 1 trillion euro industry within a decade. However, fears are growing that the field could develop into a political battleground with fiery debates about the dangers of nanotech and its health, environmental and ethical consequences - as has happened with biotechnology. This is because nanomaterials are so small that they can be inhaled or absorbed into the body through the skin. Their behaviour inside the body or in the environment is still unknown.

The European Commission recently completed a review of existing EU regulations to establish whether new legislation on nanomaterials is needed to cover these risks. According to a Commission official, a communication - set to be published this spring - will argue that no new specific regulation is needed as the related health and environmental risks are already covered by EU legislation on chemicals, novel foods and food packaging, for example.