Disappearing Nanoparticles: Regulatory Gaps in U.S. Nanotechnology EHS Policy

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
1:00-3:00 PM
Girvetz 2320
Sharon Ku

CNS Visiting Postdoctoral Researcher

Guest Researcher, National Institutes of Health Office of History

This presentation analyzed the politics of the National Nanotechnology Initiative’s (NNI) Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) strategy and outcomes of its implementation. Primary sources from the National Institutes of Health’s Interagency Nano Working Group reveal the complex social and political factors underpinning the “evidence-based” life cycle analysis of nanomaterials proposed by the EHS strategy. Notions of “evidence” as a neutral explanatory tool are problematic, as in practice nanotechnology regulatory policy was crafted by federal agencies to define their political responsibility and win support from the federal government. Case studies of two nanotechnology-related products―the breast cancer drug Abraxane, and the drinking supplement Mesogold―demonstrate that the interagency politics of nanomaterials measurement produces “information silos” in the life cycle analysis. As a result, manufacturers can strategically label their nanotechnology-enabled products and make them visible in the market domain but invisible in the regulatory domain. These regulatory gaps provide space for “unruly” nanoparticles to reach the market in ways that challenge the NNI’s assumptions of risk governance and public health protection.


Dr. Sharon Ku was trained as a physicist working on atomic scale imaging before joining the field of science studies. Her scientific background has directed her interest into the sociology of scientific knowledge and laboratory studies, particularly with respect to the sociology of nanoscale measurement.  Her doctoral work focused on the area of nanotechnology standardization, in which she traced the production of the first nanosize standard certified by National Institute of Standards and technology—Gold Nanoparticle Reference Material—to illustrate the politics under a precision measurement. 


During her postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, she worked on a project “Laboratory in Translation: A Social History of Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory at National Cancer Institute” where she documented the history of this first federally-funded laboratory designated to nanoparticle characterization. Through tracing the lab’s complex interactions with its academic, governmental and industrial collaborators, her study reveals the strong entanglement between science and institution, and the modes of interdisciplinary and inter-agencies collaborations under the context of NCI’s and NNI’s policies on nanotechnology. Her current research on how the idea of interdisciplinarity is practiced and realized at CNS-UCSB and CNS-ASU expands her study of interdisciplinary collaboration from the science-led community to a broader social setting constituted by scientists, social scientists and the public. By studying how orders among disciplines are negotiated, generated and stabilized at different research sites, she aims to explore the meaning of interdisciplinarity and collaboration in contemporary knowledge making.