Thursday, November 30, 2006

Discerning Nanotech's Identiry

This was posted a month or so ago on the CNS web site. I'm not sure how long it was on the home page before it was displaced. So, here it is again:

Will the real nano please stand up? As scholars and policy makers from a variety of fields grapple with the potential societal implications of nanotechnology, one of the first hurdles they must overcome is definitional. Indeed, the term “nanotechnology” itself is problematic. Nanotech isn’t a particular thing or process. It is more accurate (although less convenient) to speak of nanotechnologies.

Nanotechnologies already span a wide range of materials, processes, and devices. Most commonly considered of late are passive nanoscale particles incorporated into commercial products. When the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies released an inventory earlier this year of nano-products, nearly 60 percent related to health and fitness. While hardly novel – humans have been able to make and manipulate nanosize particles for centuries – the types of materials and their presence in quotidian products like cosmetics has generated considerable amount of recent media attention when nano’s possible risks are discussed.

The second major category in the Woodrow Wilson inventory covers products which integrate nanoscale features into actual devices such as computer chips. Unfortunately, the category masks the ubiquity of these products in everyday life. Downhill skis and tennis rackets with embedded nanoparticles receive the same analytical weight as electronic goods already in homes and offices around the globe. Such inventories also often neglect devices made via nanofabrication techniques such as 700 million or so diode lasers made annually via epitaxial deposition. While the Woodrow Wilson catalog is an excellent first stage, more information about the economic impact of these various products and independent verification of their ‘nano-ness’ might provide nano-and-society researchers with a more refined sense of perspective and scale.

A third aspect of nanotechnology, far removed from the realm of passive nanoscale particles, is what, for many, galvanized their initial interest, enthusiasm, and even dread about the possibilities of nanotechnology. Not yet represented in commercial inventories, active nanostructures, nanobots, and self-guided molecular assemblers stood at the heart of the whole Drexlerian vision of building a future world, or at least future products, from the bottom up.

In late September 2006, the National Research Council (NRC) released its triennial review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The report, titled A Matter of Size, discusses these different facets of the nano-enterprise. Over twenty experts from industry, national laboratories, and universities prepared it while dozens more offered input on topics ranging from “Responsible Development of Nanotechnology” to “Technology Transfer and Economic Impacts.” The NRC report praises the interagency collaboration that has enabled funding more than twenty centers for research on nanotechnology. Interestingly, the two national Centers for Nanotechnology in Society – funded more than a year ago at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Arizona State University – were not included in the report’s list of national centers nor mentioned in the chapter devoted to “Responsible Development of Nanotechnology.”

Substantial press coverage accompanied the report’s release. On September 26, for instance, The New York Times’s business section (where the Times presents most of its nano news) reported how the NRC panel offered a “hopeful but guarded analysis” of the U.S.’s broad performance in nanotechnology research. A close reading of A Matter of Size provides some valuable insights into the state of nanoscale research in development in the United States. Included in its 143 pages are evaluations of the effectiveness of federal agencies in coordinating nanotech research, comparative information on national publication and patenting rates, and the environmental, health, and safety issues associated with nano.

The authors of A Matter of Size are quite explicit in their opinion that, rather than a discrete thing or technique, nanotechnology is an enabling technology. Much like rocket developments enabled the exploration of the space frontier and the exploitation of space for military and commercial uses, nanotechnologies have the potential to open up the nano frontier. In fact, one might think of the NNI’s focus on building up, as the NRC report says, a “robust R&D infrastructure” in the same manner that NASA’s creation in 1958 helped catalyze capabilities in aerospace and aeronautics technologies.

Different aspects of nano’s identity emerge in the report’s chapter on economic impact. Referencing a 2004 report from Lux Research, the NRC panel concludes that “the nanotechnology value chain cuts from nano-materials to nano-intermediates to nano-enabled products.” This fact is often missing in generalized discussion regarding nano’s potential benefits and risks – when one talks nano, which nano is it? Is it low-tech nanoparticles in food and cosmetics? Or electronics with nanoscale features? Obviously both. However, it is the former flavor that has received the bulk of the attention public opinion surveys, NGO reports, and testimony to Congress about nanotech’s potential risks.

When scientists and policy makers introduced the NNI in 2000, they did so with bold rhetorical flourishes that highlighted nano’s transformative potential for the U.S. economy. In fact, the multi-agency report that first presented the NNI was subtitled “Leading to the Next Industrial Revolution.” Inside, readers were told that sometime in the “early 21st century” nano “will have a profound impact on our economy and society.”

As federal funding for nanotechnology increased and then stabilized, policy makers tempered this rhetoric somewhat. A 2003 report accompanying President Bush’s FY 2004 budget request for the NNI included the phrase “research and development supporting the next industrial revolution” in its title with little focus in the text given to the time scale on which this transformation might occur.

The new NRC report follows this trend and offers a measured assessment of how far in the distance the nano-revolution appears. Just like the “20-40 year period for the development of computing and communications technologies,” nano is a “long-term undertaking whose goals and benefits will take time to realize.” While less dramatic than initial pronouncements regarding nano’s implications for the U.S. economy, the NRC report accurately notes that technological “revolutions” are rarely simple or swift.

When Congress passed Public Law 108-153, it specifically asked the NRC to do a one-time study of “the technical feasibility of molecular self-assembly.” The fifth chapter of the NRC report, although not discussed in The New York Times, returns to some of nano’s historical roots as it dutifully fulfills the Congressional mandate.

The inclusion of molecular self-assembly references a third flavor of nanotechnology and one that, arguably, stimulated much of the original interest in nanotechnology. The concept of molecular assemblers harks back to the relatively early days of nano, at least in terms of its promotion and presentation to the public. In the 1980s, K. Eric Drexler forcefully advocated for the idea that new materials and devices could be fabricated from the bottom-up using atoms and molecules as basic building blocks. It was this vision of “molecule-by-molecule” control that Drexler described, for example, in 1992 at a Congressional hearing convened by then-Senator Albert Gore.

Drexler’s vision of hypothetical autonomous assemblers was taken up and elaborated on by scores of science-fiction writers. It also is the vision of nanotechnology that the public thinks of first according to a forthcoming article by Waldron et al. in The Journal of Nanoparticle Research. If nothing else, scenarios of nanobots either running amok or working productively to “manufacture complex, large-scale industrial objects” sit at the heart of the nano-vision. Drexler’s vision represents another part of nanotechnology’s identity and one that has received considerable hostility from the mainstream scientific community – witness the infamous ‘debate’ between Drexler and the late Richard Smalley in 2003 in the pages of Chemical and Engineering News.

Few studies of nano have carefully considered the role of the more fantastical portrayals of nanotechnology in shaping the public’s perception. A 2004 study by Cobb and Macoubrie did look at the possible effects of Michael Crichton’s novel Prey but the results were inconclusive. Only about 10% of the people polled had read it. Here, I suggest, analogies with the early days of space exploration or the decades before nuclear fission was a scientific reality may be more important than recognized.

While the NRC panel did not dismiss the Drexlerian vision entirely, it concluded that it was best relegated to “visionary engineering analysis” for now. In making its point, the panel drew a historical analogy with space exploration. This was an interesting departure as GMOs and biotech are invoked most frequently as potential analogs for understanding nano’s benefits and risks. The idea of molecular self-assembly was akin, the report said, to the early 20th century writings of visionaries like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and those researchers today who are designing space elevators based on “hypothetical carbon nanotube composite materials.”

Another useful analogy can be drawn from the history of space flight, as well. During the Cold War, the government supported space technologies as instruments of state power and prestige. Concomitantly, the American public mobilized behind a vision of space travel that matched what movies and fiction presented – moon bases, trips to Mars, and so forth. It is doubtful that a vision based on the current state of affairs – a science-shorn space station or a space-capable SUV (otherwise known as the Space Shuttle) – could have galvanized such wide support.

When he testified to Congress in 1999 in support of the NNI, Richard Smalley noted that exploring the nano-frontier could inspire a new cohort of youngsters just as space exploration had motivated his generation. With federal support of nano research and development running at over a billion dollars per year, will the American public be satisfied with “low-tech nano?” Does toothpaste-with-nanoparticles have the ability to inspire future engineers and scientists?

Giving more attention to how “visionary engineering analyses” can shape people’s current perceptions and future expectations could add a valuable extra dimension to the nano-and-society research plan. Along similar lines, despite its mandate to carry out a one-time evaluation of molecular self-assembly, perhaps the NRC will revisit the topic again and consider how this over-the-horizon aspect of nanotechnology stimulates, if not the economy, then the public’s imagination.

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