Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Being Mike Roco

Despite the stereotype of the rude, pushy reporter who shouts accusations at policymakers to incite a good angry sound bite, journalists who are interested in actually learning something and informing his readers usually try a different tactic.

I've found that to truly understand the basis of policy, you have to have long conversations with public figures who formulate the policy. There is really no other way to get beyond sound bites and rehearsed answers. What works for me is to begin by just having a chat with policymakers about their past, and hopefully bringing them back to that first point of inspiration or excitement, when they stepped onto the path that carried them into positions of prominence.

Usually, unless they've managed to build themselves a multilayered force field of political wariness over the years, taking them back in time is a way to build some semblance of trust that I'll accurately report their point of view. Sometimes, I'm lucky enough to see a source's eyes glaze over and gaze past my shoulder as they relive key moments in their career. When that happens, then you can go ahead and ease into some of the tougher questions and get answers that go deeper than the press releases.

The National Nanotechnology Initiative's Mike Roco granted me a series of interviews in Washington recently (squeezed into multiple sessions as he ran back and forth between me and his duties on the podium). He gave me considerable attention because, I'm assuming, I've used this blog since June 2003 to draw attention to some criticism of the NNI and he wanted to get his point of view across to my audience. My argument has always been that the official party line gets tons of ink and pixels elsewhere, so I've used this blog to collect voices of dissent. But I found Roco to be a fascinating interview subject and he was quite gentlemanly and candid at the same time.

I've heard other reporters tell me that it's difficult to understand what he's saying. But his Romanian accent sounds very similar to my grandfather's Hungarian, so I understood him perfectly.

I'm working on a column for Small Times that places some perspective on the "toxic buckyball" story that so angered the "nano establishment" recently. But to understand the reaction, you have to get to know the decision-makers. Here's just a little edited snippet that NanoBot readers might be interested in. Here, he was talking about a competition he won back in the early '80s, when the National Science Foundation gave the University of Kentucky professor a grant to study the way materials behave on the nanoscale.

    Howard Lovy: You weren't called crazy back in 1991? Nanotechnology? That's science fiction.

    Roco: Exactly.

    Lovy: What motivated you back then?

    Roco: I was driven by a higher purpose in science. I started to be interested in size when I came to NSF to look for other generic ideas that have larger impact.

    "First of all, with nano, you have to work with other fields. Secondly, it's not only to work officially to create a nano product or to do bio or information. You have to start integration from the nanoscale up. And suddenly comes the other aspects. If you do this, you start to understand the brain differently. You start to understand the world differently. You start to enter the humanistic field and other things that make possible nano … to integrate from very small scale, you can build out to real objects to human dimension and to societal dimension.

    What motivated me was to do something that is essential to the advancement of science. This was the first thing. … Suddenly, there came a big opportunity that was dormant. Nobody was paying attention to this."

    Lovy: So, you felt that there needed to be some kind of unifying …

    Roco: Approach.

    Lovy: How did you, a mild-mannered, professor, how did you get the ear of government like that?

    Roco: It's not that the idea was to work in government. The idea was to drive a bigger picture, a bigger problem.

    Lovy: What is the bigger picture to you?

    Roco: The bigger picture, first of all, is that you make connection among all sciences. Secondly, you find that you don't need the disciplines almost. They disappear. … You can transform things. You can understand life.

    When I started this converging technology idea, the idea was you go from material world to brain, mind and body. There is a connection. Nobody was making the connection. But from practical point of view, what I realized is that you can build, when I decided to spend time on this, it was to build something up."

    Lovy: So, you have a larger vision and along the way you have 5-year plans up to 2020, with incremental steps along the way. But what do you think is the ultimate goal? Or is there one?

    Roco: It would be difficult to define an ultimate goal, but a simple goal is systematic control of the nanoscale. Right now, we don't have systematic control. We have only accidental control. Something happens if we do something, but we don't know how. Physically, almost all the nano field is dominated by empirical results in single components. We have to move toward systematic picture. We have to move toward measurements. Not only simulation, but direct measurements. We have to have a different understanding.

    You know, in physics this concept of unifying all the concepts under the same law, I think that you have to move in that direction from the nanoscale. I think it's a mistake to try to use the macroscale and to try to succinctly make a summation of that. There is not an algebraic summation of these laws and I think the feeling is that the wrong way to go up is not to understand these large assemblers that are dynamically unstable."

    Lovy: Then here's a question I have to ask you. When you talk about the ultimate goal of managing things on the nanoscale, that vision doesn't sound that much different to me than those who think molecular manufacturing is possible.

    Roco: Other people who are not working in science, who have never created something, they create imaginary models as if all were not necessary. We do it progressively. You cannot start to make a molecular device before doing this other thinking.

    I have to go to close this session.

    Lovy: OK

    Roco: I would like to continue this. By the way, you have to be careful. For instance, people started to think of self-assembly back in '91. Then other, four or five people, start to make imagination: "A nanobot, this is my idea," and they start to focus on that idea, but there was no explanation, no proofing, no event, and so you have to make a difference between real stuff and …. (Roco's voice trails off as he heads back to the session.)

More later.