Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Nano Does D.C.

Photo by Adam Keiper

From left, Sean Murdock of the NanoBusiness Alliance; Sen. George Allen, R-Va.; Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Sharon Smith, director of Technology at Lockheed Martin; Chris Mather of NorTech; and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y.

By Adam Keiper
Managing editor of The New Atlantis,
Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and …
NanoBot Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Feb. 9, 2005 – It's a busy week for nanotechnology in the nation's capital, with a legislative blitz on Capitol Hill from the NanoBusiness Alliance, and a major nanotechnology workshop being held at the National Academy of Sciences.

First, the legislative side of things. the NanoBusiness Alliance -- a U.S. lobbying group -- is bringing a fair number of executives from nanotechnology companies around the country to Washington for meetings with members of Congress and congressional staffers. This event was nicely timed to coincide with the release of the Bush administration's new budget for fiscal 2006, which is of course a subject of great interest for this crowd, since federal spending on nanotechnology is on the rise. (It will soon cross $1 billion per year.) [UPDATE: To clarify, although the Bush administration requested just under $1 billion for nanotechnology in fiscal year 2005, Congress appropriated more than the administration wanted -- so federal spending on nanotech actually crosses the $1 billion threshold *this year*. -AK]

But the federal budget is stretched pretty tight this year and anyone who benefits from federal nanotech largesse wants to make sure his or her chunk of the budget doesn't get squeezed too badly. Hence the value in going door to door on Capitol Hill, asking staffers to learn about the latest nanotech businesses back in their home states and districts. (You can learn more about the proposed federal science and technology budget here.)

For the media, the key event in this nanotech blitz on the Hill was a little press conference co-sponsored by the NanoBusiness Alliance and the Congressional Nano Caucus. The caucus is still pretty small -- it only includes seven senators and about 20 representatives -- but will likely grow with time. It has four co-chairmen, and three of them were present at this morning's news conference:

  • Sen. George Allen, R.-Va., spoke about the importance of investing in nanotechnology: "Ever since the industrial revolution," America has been a technology leader, he said, and we need to maintain that "competitive edge" by investing in nanotech. "I'm competitive -- you might have guessed that from the football background," he joked. "You either make dust or you eat dust." (Given the fears in some quarters about the health effects of nanoparticles and about "smart nano-dust," perhaps that was an unfortunate turn of phrase.) Allen also referred to the job-creating potential of nanotechnology, mentioning by way of example Luna Innovations, a Virginia-based nanotech firm that has created fifty-odd jobs, and is based in a former tobacco plant.
  • Sen. Ron Wyden, D.-Ore., spoke next. He described the "bipartisan and bicameral" support for nanotechnology in Congress, and pointed out that the United States is ranked third in terms of government investment in nanotechnology. (This statistic only works if you include Europe as a single entity, in which case Europe and Japan rank ahead of the United States.) Wyden mentions the often-heard claim that nanotechnology will soon be a trillion dollar market (that claim seems to have originated with the National Science Foundation back in 2001 (PDF, 3.1 MB)). He also mentions Michael Crichton's book "Prey," and refers to the "ethical issues" related to nanotechnology -- specifically mentioning what he calls "gray glop." It will be important, he says, to consider these ethical issues without "freezing innovation."
  • Next, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R.-N.Y., the chair of the House Science Committee, spoke for a few minutes. He pointed out that, despite cuts elsewhere in the federal science and technology budget, "nano is holding its own."
The three congressmen answered a few questions from reporters. One answer in particular might be of interest. When your correspondent asked Senator Allen to speak about the ethical issues that Senator Wyden had mentioned, Senator Allen said he considered them the "biggest challenge" facing nanotechnology -- not the so-called "gray goo" problem or the surveillance concerns or other potential fears that groups like the Foresight Institute might be concerned about, but rather the public perception of those problems. Just because a new technology might cause problems doesn't mean that it shouldn't happen -- after all, "even the Internet can be used in malicious ways -- just think of spyware," he said.

He then spoke of the importance of educating policymakers and the general public about the real facts related to nanotechnology, so they won't be led astray by "assertions, rumors, legends, [and] myths [that] come out of sci-fi or letters to the editor or blogging or whatever." If people pay attention to those who warn about the potential downsides of nanotechnology, then nanotech research might face the same sort of backlash that genetically modified foods have faced in Europe.

There were four other speakers at the press conference:

  • Sean Murdock of the NanoBusiness Alliance, who described nanotechnology as "an investment that we cannot afford not to make" and referred the audience to the recent Business Week cover story on nanotech;
  • Sharon Smith, the director of technology for Lockheed Martin, who described a number of near-term applications of nanotechnology (like lighter-weight and stronger aircraft structures, and sensors with "unparalleled sensitivity"), and even said "I can't think of a single product that we're going to be making over the next several years or decades that's not going to be impacted by nanotechnology";
  • Chris Mather of NorTech, who said that nanotech investment is much lower than it should be, because venture capitalists have had their enthusiastic tendencies dampened by the dotcom bust; and
  • Donn Tice, the CEO of Nano-Tex, a company that makes nano-fabrics, who said that the size of his company is just about doubling every year. It presently has about 100 employees.

And that's it from the NbA / Nano Caucus press conference. I'm heading off now to the National Academy of Sciences building, for the big nano workshop, and will send notes later on how that goes.

Related News
A statement from House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert

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