Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The Domi-Nano Theory

A puzzled reporter called me late last week. Like many nanotech-industry watchers, he was scratching his head over the recent announcement that former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres was the scheduled keynote speaker at this September's World Nano-Economic Congress in Washington, D.C. He had read my blog entry from last week on this subject, but still wanted to know more. Aside from the cynical view taken by a reader on my message board that Peres was simply available through the Washington Speakers Bureau and that he really knows nothing about the subject (although a quick speaker's search in the bureau's Web site turns up nobody named Shimon Peres), what does the former Israeli leader and Nobel laureate know about nanotech, and why is Israel pushing it?

The reporter wondered aloud whether it had anything to do with what he heard was a kind of nanotech "arms race" going on internationally.

I told him that while the arms race metaphor is being used by nanotech's detractors, he's basically correct: Former President Clinton's creation of the National Nanotechnology Initiative was indeed the shot heard 'round the nano world, spurring other nations, large and small, to commit significant amounts of money to nanotechnology research and development. To use another ancient metaphor, the United States knocked over the first domino, setting in motion similar efforts from its international competitors. Government watchdogs, of course, cannot help but hear the clatter, and that's where we are today (see my previous three rantings on Greenpeace).

Nations around the world talk now of the need to "play catch-up" with the United States in nanotech commercialization, turning the issue, inevitably, into one that involves national pride, as Shimon Peres (or his ghost writer) has written previously. In the United States, too, this international competition, or arms race, if you will, is seen as a way to stir an American public that has not been excited about science since the space race. U.S. officials want to use the debate over nanotech at the government level as a bully pulpit to spread the nano word. Some are even suggesting a space-race-style nano challenge to inspire American taxpayers. I'm a bit skeptical that the American people – much more cynical about government and science since the '60s (space shuttle disasters, Three Mile Island, etc.) – can ever again feel that sense of innocent wonder. At best, nanotech breakthroughs will be "one small step" at a time, with very few noticeable "giant leaps" to glue Americans to their TV sets as they did in 1969.

But I also told the reporter that this sense of international competition is something that's meant for internal consumption, to get the voting public to wake up and take notice. In reality, there is a great deal of international cooperation in nanotech research and development – including (shhh, don't tell anybody), between the United States and France!

So, back to Israel and Peres. I really don't know how much Peres knows about nanotechnology. But I do assume that he's aware of the research going on in his country's universities, and the money being invested by the venture capital community. Peres has also used his bully pulpit for a $500 million-$600 million nanotech initiative of his own. Recently, former AOL-Time Warner Chairman Steve Case met with Peres to talk about Israel's nanotech fund. You'd have to assume that Case wasn't just humoring an old man who knows nothing about nanotech.

The Israel angle may interest the press because nobody wants to read another story about how the United States is competing in nanotech with its traditional rivals like Japan. But Israel, usually in the news for far different reasons, devoting its scarce resources to nanotech in order to compete globally? Now, that's more of an interesting story. To me, it shows how nanotech is transforming from a niche, special-interest subject for geeks into a global economic development story.

It's a story that will contain all the color and controversy of the environmental issue, so watch for the clatter of dominoes to soon catch the attention of the anti-globalization movement. It's an interesting time to be covering nanotech.


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