Phil Bond, the U.S. Commerce Department's undersecretary for technology, did not tread lightly over "ethical and environmental issues" at his NanoCommerce 2003 keynote address in Chicago this morning. In fact, the president's chief nano agent likes to "reverse the polarity" on the issue when he talks about calls from some environmental groups to halt nanotech development. Bond argues that not only would a nanotech research moratorium be the wrong thing to do, it would be, yes, "unethical." How could you not harness the power of nanotech, given its potential to improve the quality of human life and the environment.
Bond argued that the National Nanotechnology initiative has been on top of the environmental issue "from day one."
The focus of the fear is not all related to the environment, Bond suggested. It's also about apprehension over an impending economic upheaval.
"A disruptive technology of course brings some fear and apprehension. Of course it does," Bond told the crowd of nanotechnology business leaders. "It's disruptive by its very definition. If an industry can be transformed or eliminated, of course there's apprehension. We're talking about people's livelihoods."
That, he said, is nothing new. Society went through similar upheavals with the invention of the automobile and the harnessing of electricity.
"The body politic, to use a bio analogy, is susceptible to this virus of fear," Bond said, and fears by the public will eventually be reflected in laws passed by Congress, slowdowns in research and – now, here's where he's speaking more to his audience – funding.
"We must prevent that fear from taking hold of all of us," Bond said. "In fact, in that sense, as a business proposition, as a business proposition (yes, he repeated the phrase and placed emphasis on the "B"-word), I submit that we all must identify the legitimate ethical and societal issues … as soon as possible."
First, separate the science from the science fiction, then address them yourself and urge government representatives to address them. "All of us are going to have to be engaged in this," Bond said. "It's very easy to write a negative story, a fear-mongering story" or write a best-selling nanobook and hit movie.
Bond had more to say, but I'll stop here so I can get back to more of the conference. Here is one initial thought from me: I doubt President Bush's representative would be placing so much emphasis on the need to address environmental and ethical issues had the ETC Group, Greenpeace and others not raised the alarm last year.
These groups might have their science and tactics all wrong, but you can't argue with results. These issues are high on the government's agenda only because of its own fear and apprehension over negative publicity. It may be true that these environmental concerns had been a part of the government's thinking as early as 1991, but would there be as much emphasis, and funding, for the study of these implications had the activist groups not fed the press the scare stories?