Nanotech risks must be managed

University of Limerick

Ireland has a global reputation for leadership in nanotechnology, with three of its largest industries directly impacted by nano-science: Medical devices, pharmaceutical drugs, and information and communications technology.

Worldwide, nanotechnology is a major driver of economic growth and, while its overall contribution to world GDP is disputed, conservative estimates suggest it is a multibillion-dollar sector in high growth. That said, concerns over the risk posed by this emerging technology threaten to derail the bandwagon.

It is difficult to underestimate the potential of insurance in terms of improving the resilience of the commercial entities that make up the commercial nanotech sector and, by extension, its centrality to the very sustainability of that industry. The importance of SMEs at strategic junctures of the value chain of the sector further emphasises the importance of risk transfer.

SMEs in this sector are vulnerable to changes in risk perception on the part of key stakeholders, particularly the insurance sector. Without the ability to transfer risk or indeed access to insurance markets, the viability of many SMEs operating in this sector is questionable.

The nexus of a regulation, law, and insurance in many jurisdictions, particularly in the areas of workers’ compensation and environmental liability, means that without insurance operations, nanotech activity may be curtailed.

The ability to communicate risk effectively also has a major impact on regulators and investors, both key communities that sustain nanotechnology in Europe. In the medium term, maintaining, indeed creating, a vibrant sector will require an effective and robust risk-assessment tool.

To this end, researchers at the University of Limerick have assembled a consortium that includes some of the major players in risk governance and nanotech data from across Europe. The combination of major insurance syndicates, together with blue chip IT involvement in the area of artificial intelligence, represents an unprecedented joint effort to fulfil the long-standing ambition to create a state-of-the-art risk governance tool for the nanotech sector.

The contested nature of the nanotech toxicology/exposure field makes this an ideal case for a big data tool. The ability to analyse metadata represents a major step forward in terms of the risk governance of nanotech and of emerging technology more generally

The multidisciplinary team at UL effectively acts as a bridging point between the scientific community and those stakeholders that require more effective risk assessment. A deeper understanding and more granular view of the economic ecosystem that sustains the nanotech sector is an essential prerequisite for effective risk governance.

Our strategic goal is to develop a tool which will place the industry on a more sustainable footing. This will allow interested parties and key stakeholders to efficiently categorise risks pertaining to the sector. At the same time this project will address the key issue of nascent catastrophic risk.

The juxtaposition of control banding as a methodology for managing risk and the development of new methodologies to detect the emergence of catastrophic risk will improve the ability of the industry to more effectively manage risk communication.

The expectation is that UL’s work will place Europe at the vanguard of best practice and assist policymakers in assessing the impact of nanotech. We believe this is a necessary step towards ethical and well-informed decision making on the part of stakeholders.

At the heart of the EU’s 2020 strategy is a smart, sustainable, and inclusive economy. Nanotechnology is a key driver for economic growth and innovation. It addresses key societal challenges facing the region, such as the medical needs of an ageing population.

Nanotechnology can and will bring economic growth and employment opportunities within the EU — but only if the attendant risks can be managed.

Dr Martin Mullins is head of department of accounting & finance, University of Limerick.


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