Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Nanotech Policy Predictions

I recently asked a few nano-contemplators what they thought was going to happen next on the nanotech policy front. I incorporated some of their ideas in my last Small Times column, but I spent so much space spouting my own opinions that some of their best ideas were left on the cutting-room floor. So, here are excerpts from a couple of them in response to a few of my questions. I'll post more of these later, too.


Kevin Ausman, executive director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University in Houston

Me: Do you think a system of self-regulation (along the lines of the Foresight Guidelines) is going to emerge?

Kevin: Probably, though not because of any sense of need. The nanotech community isn't working on the kinds of things that the Foresight Guidelines is trying to protect against, so the community isn't particularly feeling threatened by any such self-regulation, and I have heard discussions of trying to adopt such a system to forestall public concerns.

On the more tangible points of nanomaterial health and safety, we are already seeing positive signs among the research and business communities as business plans, research directions, and funding decisions are all being modified to address these issues. The general consensus (although I am not an expert myself) seems to be that existing regulations pretty-much cover nanomaterials, if the interpretation of these regulations is appropriately handled, and all interested parties are trying to make sure that appropriate precidents are set in such applications of existing regulations.

Me: Is there any consensus yet in the nanotech research and business community? Optimism? Pessimism?

Kevin: Not really. Some (typically the large and medium-sized companies) view this as simply a standard storm to be weathered in the development of new products and technologies. Many smaller companies are worried that nanotechnology as a whole will get tarred by any individual negitive results, even if those results are obviously specific to a particular material rather than an larger class of materials.

Me: Will the recent media attention to what is unknown about nanotech increase the likelihood of some form of U.S. or European regulation being pushed through quickly?

Kevin: I would say that the liklihood in the U.S. is rather low, as environmental regulation here tends to be reactive rather than proactive. Europe has a different tradition in this regard.

Me: Do you have any predictions for what's going to happen in the next couple of months - with the nanotech bill coming up for a vote, the European Parliament paying more attention to nanotech, and advisory groups in the U.S. and U.K. set to meet?

Kevin: I think that the policy-makers, at least in the U.S., will continue to say things along the lines of, "It's hard to regulate an industry until there is an industry to regulate." I think that industry will continue its recent trend to support research to get ahead of the curve in determining health and environmental impacts, largely because its good business to do so. I think that academic researchers will begin to take advantage of the newly available funds for health and environmental impacts research, and that papers of varying quality will begin to get published, to much public fanfare.


Eric Drexler, founder of the Foresight Institute:

I have no special insights to offer regarding views in the community or the likely output of the political process, but I think there is a simple, natural message that could influence both.

In brief: 1) Today's nanotechnology is a collection of incremental advances along multiple scientific and technological frontiers, hence existing laws and regulations should either already fit or be easily adapted.

(For example, Intel is already shipping nanotechnology in its standard chips, but this doesn't call for new legislation. Nanoparticles have existed since the dawn of the universe, and treating new nanoparticles as new materials from a toxicology standpoint is a case where the regulatory framework needs a modest extension.)

2) A revolutionary nanotechnology based on molecular machine systems is on the way, but its practical reality is many years away, hence new laws and regulations would be premature. (For example, what I discussed in Engines of Creation and Bill Joy wrote about in Wired will not be a practical reality until after a major systems engineering develops molecular machine systems that are themselves able to build complex products. To regulate such things today would be like regulating Moon bases after some experiments with rocketry but before launching the first satellite.)

The key is to clarify the distinction between long-term and short-term, and to point out that the real revolution is still distant. The best way to engage with calls for a regulatory response is to focus on areas such as nanoparticle toxicology, where existing rules fail to recognize what is different (for better or worse) about the new nanomaterials. The aim should be to extend a regulatory framework that already co-exists with thriving industries, such as fine chemicals.


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