Tuesday, January 06, 2004

It's about vision, not nanobots

A reader affiliated with the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office challenged me recently on some of my commentaries on molecular manufacturing as a policy goal. The reader said that government funded research on "nanoscale manufacturing" is already under way, pointing me to these projects.

I responded that those are all very worthwhile areas of study, especially since they appear to reflect a healthy balance between the advancement of nanotech as both a business and a science. Government funding for these kinds of projects -- on a piecmeal basis -- has been going on for a while, and I'm certain will continue. These researchers are the ones who are doing the important work, away from the spotlight, and will emerge with some amazing discoveries in nanoscale manufacturing.

In fact, the spirit of these kinds of grants runs counter to the words I'm hearing from some government and business spokespeople, who have declared nanoscale self-replication (and I'm not certain that the projects cited delve into that) to be impossible.

To me, the separate issue is one of government vision and priorities. My main argument is that U.S. policymakers need to rise above the commerce side of the debate and help encourage development of nanoscience without letting business interests become the sole driver of the research. As this NNCO reader pointed out, that is not entirely the case, but reading the nanotech bill alone, you'd think that the government's central goal was to spin off companies and develop new products. Is that it?

The proposed center to study nanotech's impact on society is a step in the right direction, but with only one model of nanotechnology deemed legitimate, I'm not certain what exactly will be studied. Many of the "societal and ethical implications" research that I've come across either assumes that molecular manufacturing is feasible, or is concerned with how to fight negative or misleading images of nanotechnology.

In other words, is the study of "societal implications" another way to control the message by stamping out all "incorrect" images of nanotech? It's very bizarre. I hear all the time that the nanotech business community and the government want to avoid another "GMO"-type controversy. So, its solution is to create a center on ethics that will discuss how to manage and conrol image and public perception?

It was determined that a feasibility study on MNT was not the best use of government resources, but a center for image control was deemed money well spent.

As the NNCO reader pointed out, though, there is research going on in molecular manufacturing -- even government-sponsored research -- just as there are government-funded projects to study societal and ethical implications. As the nanotech bill was being formulated, though, it was determined that research into societal and ethical implications should come together into a new center, while research into nanoscale manufacturing -- for various reasons -- was determined to be too "out there," not the best use of government resources and certainly not worthy of a national goal.

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