IRG1-6: Nanotechnology Narratives and U.S. Environmental, Health, & Safety (EHS) Policies

(Roger Eardley-Pryor)

This historical research project examines the fantasies and fears of policy-makers, scientists, civil society, and the American media as they all struggled to understand the impact nanotechnology would have on the future health of nature, the economy, and our bodies. Building upon prior and ongoing research conducted by IRG 1, this project seeks to integrate public and policy-maker imaginings of nanotechnology with the development of national and state nanoEHS policies. The specific focus is on exploring how early visions of manipulating matter at the nanoscale produced a wave of utopian expectations for exemplary environmental and health applications in such areas as energy, conservation, remediation, and medicine.


Shortly after the establishment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and the escalation of American investment in nanotechnology, the once salubrious visions for nanotechnology’s environmental impacts inspired tense skepticism. Leading voices, activists, and scientists produced new, dystopian visions of the death of nature, caused by out-of-control nanotechnology. These broad swings in public understanding of nanotechnology’s environmental implications spurred new avenues of research, inspired debates on the definition and meaning of nanotechnology, and instigated the re-examination of policies for the safety of workers and consumers, as well as the health of the environment itself.