updated 11/15/2006 6:37:13 PM ET 2006-11-15T23:37:13

Urgent research into the potential dangers of nanotechnology needs to be carried out in order to convince the public of its future value in fields such as medicine and computing, scientists urged on Wednesday.

They believe the potential of nanotechnology, which operates on an atom-sized scale, will not be realised without clear information about the true risks and how to avoid them.

Andrew Maynard, of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, and 13 other international experts warned that time is running out to get it right.

"If the public loses confidence in the commitment — of governments, business and the science community — to conduct sound and systematic research into possible risks, then the enormous potential of nanotechnology will be squandered. We cannot let that happen," they said in a commentary in the journal Nature.

Nanotechnology is the design and use of particles as small as one-billionth of a metre. A human hair is about 80,000 nanometres across.

It is already being used in cosmetics, computer chips, sunscreens, self-cleaning windows and stain-resistant clothing. But materials on such a small scale have different properties from larger versions.

The experts said instruments to assess environmental exposure to nanomaterials must be developed in the next three to 10 years and that methods are needed within the next 15 years to evaluate the toxicity of nanomaterials.

They also stressed the need to develop models within a decade to predict the potential impact of new nanomaterials on health and the environment and strategic programmes for risk-focused research over the next 12 months.

"It is about whether governments, industry and scientists around the world are willing to make safe nanotechnology a priority," they added.

Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican and chairman of the US House of Representatives Science Committee and Rep. Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat, described the report as a landmark in the history of nanotechnology research.

"It lays out a clear, reasonable, prioritized, consensus-based set of priorities for examining the potential environmental and health consequences of nanotechnology over the next decade and a half," they said in a joint statement.

Boehlert and Gordon urged the U.S. government to put together a plan and a budget to implement the recommendations described in the Nature report.

"We are at a rare moment when industry and environmental leaders both see the tremendous need and tremendous benefit from moving forward with this research," they added.

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