Monday, February 02, 2004

A Sad Jab at the 'Bad Rad Lab'

There were only 20-30 people at Thursday's "Bad Rad Lab" protests against the Molecular Foundry groundbreaking at Berkeley, but it bugs me, nevertheless.

The contrarian in me understands the power of protest to make a point, but the journalist in me winces when the protests are based on uneducated assumptions. As I've written before, though, if the people are uninformed about science and technology policy issues, we in the niche media should be held partially responsible.

The entire idea of the $85 million Molecular Foundry is to help scientists discover how things behave on the nanoscale, so that we can all make informed decisions on what to do with the technology, and where we need to worry. Unless the protesters know something the scientists don't know, let them do their work.

A while back, I spoke to University of California, Berkeley, researcher Steven Louie, who is using carbon nanotubes to create the building blocks of molecular electronics and new types of sensors. Louie, who is also an adviser to nanotube startup Nanomix,was practically giddy last fall when he talked to me about the foundry, which broke ground last week and will be fully functional by 2006.

Inside, he said, there are going to be engineers, chemists, biologists, even a place for theorists like him, to toss ideas around clear across different disciplines and departments. That's one thing about working on the nanoscale: Everybody is almost equally clueless, so they can make discoveries together.

"It's a really fantastic opportunity for the next 5-10 years, for many disciplines getting together at this same scale," Louie said.

"Foundry," though, was probably an unfortunate name for a research laboratory, since it creates an image of smokestacks belching out nano-who-knows-what.

What's really happening now is that scientists are only beginning to ask the question of what the environmental impacts of nanomaterials might be, yet just the fact that the question is being asked in a public way is an invitation for some to reach a conclusion based on their own preordained world view. "Aha! See? Even the scientists are asking the questions!"

The young superjournalists at the Berkeley Daily Planet have been doing an heroic job of keeping us all informed here and here and here. And more background on the foundry can be found here and here and here.

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