Sunday, December 31, 2006

2007: The Year of Societal Implications?

Maybe. We do know that 2006 was not. Or at least not in terms of overall investment in the societal implications of technology and of nanotechnology more particularly. On the other hand, there was some good news. The two Centers for Nanotechnology in Society got up and running! Less parochially, nano and its health implications were in the news, and worldwide public health became a bigger issue than ever thanks to some great research, and activism, and philanthropic attention, and celebrity interest ranging from Bill and Melinda Gates to Brad and Angelina, as faithful readers of can attest.

Speaking of Brad Pitt, what does get people to use technology in a widespread way? What will get them to adopt nanotechnology? Gerald Barnett and I geared up our research on this question of "uptake," and though our focus is on industry's uptake of academic research, societal uptake of industry products is closely related. Sometimes uptake is driven by huge national initiatives: Business 2.0 is predicting for 2007 the beginnings of a race between India and China to get to the moon. U.S. high-tech was driven by that kind of massive federal spending for a couple of generations. This public investment - spurred by a range of motives, mostly defensive, protected and promoted technology that had no market support and no chance of mass adoption for years or in some cases decades. ARPANET, the main Internet precursor, is one obvious example of a technology that transformed the economy, but only about 30 years after its first working models went operational. 20-30 years is a bench-to-bedside norm: many predictions for nanotechnology cut that in half, and then cut it in half again. I hope so. But what are the drivers?

Which reminds me of Brad. Cynics say the Internet is sponsored by unembarrassing access to porn. Judging from 2006's search demographics, the Internet is actually sponsored by Brad Pitt. More broadly, it is sponsored by gossip about celebrities. Dan Mitchell at the New York Times reported yesterday that the top search term at Yahoo was "Britney Spears," and that most of the other top search terms were for sites that allow people to bid themselves out as celebrities - Bebo was Number One at Google, and MySpace was Number Two.

People also search for really basic things on line that they would otherwise have to stand up to look at - weather reports, dictionary definitions, and maps. There's a basic utility to the Internet that complements its effectiveness as a tool of social curiosity. But I keep coming back to the fact that this apparently infinite appetite for the Internet and for its underlying technology took decades to evolve. Much of it was self-organized. What about the societal uptake of various nanotechnologies?

The first thing to say is that uptake will not be linear - tech uptake never has been. This means that it could be much faster than the Internet model suggests, or not. The second is that in 2006 much of the discussion of nano-uptake was Kurzweilized, meaning it assumed that an advancing technology creates its own uptake. This is unfortunately not true, as innumerable articles and books by high tech business scholars and consultants attest (remember "Crossing the Chasm"?). Much or most demand is created, nurtured, and gradually built through various forms of social investment (some but not all via government funding of R&D) - hence the importance of Sputnik and Apollo in creating what we can call the public imagination of the meaning of a technology that in turn creates its use.

One of the great "crossing the chasm" business scholars is Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School, who burst on the scene almost ten years ago with The Innovator's Dilemma. He reminded me of a more ominous possibility for nanotech in an interview in the business section of today's New York Times. He's talking about health care, and he addresses the obvious fact of the American system's bloated cost and huge inefficiency. But he is not advocating something like a single-payer system of the kind that operates in Canada and in most countries in Europe. He calls instead for the greater "commoditization" of health care. This means increasing the simplicity, accessibility, and affordability of health care by in effect automating as much of it as possible. "Rather than replicating the expensive expertise of Mount Sinai Medical Center or Mass General Hospital or replicating the expensive expertise of doctors, we have to commoditize their expertise."

Christensen's claim here is consistent with his books' analyses of all other high-tech industries: the real savings - and the real profits- are in moving down the commodity chain, not up. Sustainable profits lie in lowering high-tech, not in raising high-tech even higher. Many tech revolutionaries think that people like Christensen define "disruptive technology" as breakthrough technology, the kind that is 10x smaller, 10x faster, 10x smarter, 10x better. Au contraire. The truly disruptive for Christensen is the truly average version of a technology - one that was breakthrough a few years or decades ago. Accessibility (and big revenues) came to PCs, for example, when "Michael Dell could assemble one of these things in his dorm room."

The good news: disruptive technology can be adopted on a mass scale. The bad news: mass adoption is always of technology that in the scientific sense is no longer disruptive. The process of development for mass adoption, in other words, is discontinuous with advanced research. To cross the chasm between development and adoption you need to widen the chasm between development and research. Developers and researchers have different interests and goals, and developers naturally want to minimize research costs. This means developers will not flood basic research with money. Thus there will never be a venture capital-funded nano version of the Manhattan Project or even of ARPANET.

This brings me back to the question of the drivers of nano-uptake. You can't commoditize nanoscale scientific research, so who will pay for it? The answer is going to be societal. My nano New Year's resolution is to know much more one year from now about the drivers behind the future uptake of our group's selected nanotechnologies.

Whatever your role in all this, Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Intellectual Property of Drugs

Just before Christmas, Joseph E. Stiglitz authored a scathing criticism of how our model for intellectual property rights fosters selfishness within the pharmaceutical industry. I could not agree more with him. Since nanopharmaceuticals stand the chance of having a more rational design than small molecules, and thus their development may cost less, government and private incentive prizes may be viable. If the Gates Foundation or Google wanted to offer a hundred million dollar prize to the first team that can use liposomally or viral capsid delivered siRNA to knock down trypanosome alternative oxidase in humans, it could probably be done and would have many capable participants across the globe.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

VivaGel is Medical Nanotechnology

Starpharma is advancing a gel that can stem the spread of HIV and Herpes through clinical trials and anticipates that it will find a multibillion dollar market. The gel is composed of dendrimers, highly branched polymers. These big molecules latch onto viral particles and prevent them from being infectious. The catholic church may even support using it in Africa because it is not a form of contraception. This may be the first mass market drug that is marketed as nanotechnology. How the public views medical nanotechnology may be determined to some large extent by this company with the slogan, "Leading the World in Nanomedicine." Their advertising campaigns and the success of their product and the public reaction will be fun to watch.

Monday, December 18, 2006

1998 Survey of Nano Policy

Cyrus Mody (Chemical Heritage Foundation), one of our collaborators, recently sent me a link to this 1998 M.S. thesis by Richard H. Smith.

It's notable in light of the flood of federal funding that came after 1998, a year in which (according to this study) the feds spent about $150 million on nano-realted research. Also, for some reason, the host URL indicates a repository in Iran. Further probing shows that this report is on the site of the Iranian Nanotechnology Policy Studies Committee:

The report includes a useful bibliography and it offers some sense of what policy issues were before the NNI era and the factor of ten increase in funding that accompanied it. For instance, it cites NASA as probably making "the most extensive effort" in supporting nano and also notes DARPA's ULTRA program aimed at developing "ultra dense, ultra fast computing components/nanoelectronics." and electronics.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Yellow Journalism

Chemical and Engineering news prepared an article with the headline Carbon Nanotubes Pass Safety Test. The title implies that the verdict is in on carbon nanotubes and that they are safe. However, the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science only studies the pharmacokinetics of nanotubes and does not investigate their cancer causing potential.

Useful Dubious Analogies

Patrick McCray and Arie Rip are certainly right about the dangers of "folk theories." The world is full of these things and is often run by them. Empires rise and fall on the basis of mythological histories. Weekend potsmoking leads to heroin addition, premarital kissing to teen pregnancy, welfare to dependency, free trade to untold riches - or so our folk theories say.

Still, the false analogies on which these theories rest can provoke lots of creative thinking, as long as we remain aware that the analogies are imperfect. So here's another one between nanotech and biotech. In the midst of Wall Street's celebrations of their extreme bonuses - averaging $623,000 per employee at Goldman Sachs, for example - there have been articles about tech stocks that haven't done so well. One is Sun Microsystems, a company that over the years has produced much interesting strategizing about commercial versions of open-standard and even open-source, but that may now be in irreversible decline. This is not particularly good news for tech industry in general, which is overly-dependent on proprietary systems that, for reasons I'll blog about later, are increasingly difficult to protect (even assuming we should). But back to my point: Another piece in the Wall Street Journal talks about the drastic response of capital markets to failed drug trials. Herb Greenberg writes,
The six most expensive words for investors in drug or biotech companies are: "This is money in the bank." Nuvelo Inc. and NeoPharm Inc. proved that convincingly this past week, with a substantial amount of their value wiped out after reporting disappointing late-stage clinical trial results. And let's not forget the recent brouhaha when Pfizer Inc. abruptly halted trials of its torcetrapib "good cholesterol" drug following unexpected deaths.

Greenberg goes on to cite David Miller, an analyst at Biotech Stock Research, saying that only one out of every ten biotech companies succeeds. Since the nerves of biotech investors are permanently on edge, one bad trial can cause a company to lose half its value in one day, or, in some cases, all of it forever. Remember Shaman Pharmeceuticals, innovators in treatments for a range of common illnesses that damage everyday life and productivity in many tropical nations? You don't, but I do. It was my first investment ever - a tip from a biotech researcher friend, of course, sometime around 1997. One month my $2000 was still hanging in there at around $1650. The next month some shift in the wind meant that my stock was delisted and my two grand had been turned into 19 cents. Which I then grew back to $1.95 through weeks of brilliant day trading, but that's another story.

What the hell - that's life on the tech frontier, right? Big downs, but also the big ups. You rolls the dice, you takes your chances. Well maybe you do, if you're the type that plays the slots in Nevada's state line casinos. Professional investors don't roll the dice and do minimize risk - that's the only way they can win more often than they lose, and win big rather than win small. Investors quite rationally look for low rather than high risk for a given expected return.

This means that investors do not love research, in spite of how smart money always claims to be funding smart products and new industries: economists like Richard Nelson and Kenneth Arrow showed almost fifty years go that fundamental research is very risky research. Biotech is a good example. Over thirty years after the Cohen-Boyer patents on recombinant DNA technology launched the age of biotech, companies in the field have a 90% failure rate. Most of these failed companies have been based on strong, promising research: they fail because it was "only" research, and investors are looking for products, sales, and revenues.

This raises two crucial questions.
1. will private investors properly fund nanotechnological research?
2. will private investors fund this research through its inevitable ups and downs?

Though we often ask such questions, we don't know the answers - not for the diverse fields that make up nanotech, and not for biotech either How many great biotech ideas never found (or later lost) their investors and still sit on a shelf in the dark?

By the way, here are "year-in-review" figures for 2006:

University of California 10-campus federal research funds, no DOE labs:$2.2 billion
National Nanotechnology Initative (NNI) budget, all agencies, :$1.06 billion
NNI budget, risk analysis (Wilson Center estimate): $0.011 billion
Goldman Sachs, 2006 year-end funds to distribute as bonuses: $16.5 billion

Just one good year's bonus pool at a leading Wall Street investment bank could pay for seven years of systemwide research, sixteen years of the National Nanotechnology Initiatve, and, um, sixteen centuries of nano-related risk analysis. We'd better get going!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Nano Schism?

About two years ago, The New Atlantis (a publication which makes sense "of the larger questions surrounding technology and human nature, and the practical questions of governing and regulating science—especially where the moral stakes are high and the political divides are deep) published a short article called "The Nano Schism: High Tech Pants or Molecular Revolution?"

It asked if the public interested in nano because they believe the new technologies will transform their lives or simply improve them incrementally. The essay concludes that the former is the real reason the public and policy makers supported nano in the first place. It is these fantastic and far-out visions "in which politicians think they are investing."

Read more at:

Thursday, December 14, 2006


In the December 2006 issue of Science as Culture (p. 349), Arie Rip has an interesting article called "Folk Theories of Nanotechnologists." Rip, who is Professor of Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Twente, makes several arguments, two of which I'd like to highlight. Both deal with the concept of "folk theories," a term which Rip doesn't define as well as I'd like but which I take to mean taken-for-granted ideas that provide orientation for future thought and action. As Rip notes: they are "a form of expectation, based in some experience, but not necessarily systematically checked."

Now, the two ideas - one is the suggestion, which I've made here before, that the story of GMOs does not necessarily make the best narrative to understand nanotechnology. For instance, in Vicki Colvin's 2003 speech to the US Congress, she refers to the "wow-to-yuck" trajectory GMOs took and suggests this offers a "powerful lesson here for nanotechnoloy." While the story may be attractive and provide a way for opponents and advocates to get traction, Rip nicely points out that the analogy is flawed for the simple historical reason that in terms of genetic engineering, "critical debate - the yuck in Colvin's folk theory - was present from the beginning." There was, in other words, no wow-to-yuck; public apprehension about gene tinkering went back well into the 1970s. Nevertheless, media stories and even scholarly papers about nano and risk reflexively cite GMO story and frame it in the context of a (questionable) hype-disappointment cycle.

The second point Rip makes revolves around what he calls nanophobia-phobia. This boils down to the idea that much of the concerns about public fears originates with "nanotech actors and other insiders and commentators." As a result, "concerns about possible public concern is getting a life of its own." One bit of evidence - even among the small part of the population that read Prey, more people finished the book more interested and positive about nanotech.

Rip nicely uses a historical example from the chemistry community in which 1982 studies he did showed that "chemists were more positive about chemistry than the general public, but also that the general public was not very negative about chemistry, and definitely less negative than the chemists thought they would be."

Are those on the inside of the nano-enterprise projecting their own fears about a negative reaction onto the public? And what analogies work best to help us understand nano's past and current context? Rip's article suggests these are issues to consider further.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

EPA Regulates Nano Washing Machines

Samsung has been developing a line of antimicrobial nanotechnology that uses silver particles to kill bacteria and viruses. The EPA has decided to regulate the effluent from these machines as pesticide waste. I read about this in Chemical and Engineering News.

New Nanoelectronics

On December 11, The New York Times reported in its business section about IBM's development of a new kind of computer memory chip. It makes use of a new class of materials (in the germanium-antimony-tellurium family) that can switch between an amorphous and crystalline state with heating and cooling. These compounds are also used in today's optical disks.

Instead of using heat, the team at IBM used a small electrical current to bring about a phase transition, allowing them to build memory cells that can store 0's and 1's based on their state. The nano part comes in with the size of the switches - according to the NYT, they are 3 nanometers high by 20 nanometers wide. The article doesn't mention how the switches were made.

While clearly a variation of nanotechnology, this term itself isn't referenced in the article. This makes me wonder about the divergence of the nano-label as applied to real, functioning nanoscale devices and the manufacture (and concerns over) passive nano-scale particles.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Understanding Nano Policy

In a 1998 article about the Reagan-era of space exploration (Business and Economic History, Vol. 27, No. 1) , political scientist W.D. Kay notes that "before government officials can begin to address a public problem, they must first define it." What kind of problem is it? Moreover, problem definition isn't simply a matter of labeling. It also involves how officials conceptualize a problem. Finally, deciding who "owns" the problem in terms of offering a solution to it is part of the policy process.

What do we see if we apply this questions to issues around nanotechnology? What was the "problem" that resulted in in the passage of the NNI in 2000? One could argue, for instance, that it was the future of the electronics and semiconductor industries or levels of funding for the physical sciences. And, today, how has the problem of environmental, health, and safety issues been defined and by whom? Who owns this problem?

Problem definition and problem ownership - two ideas to think about when considering past and current issues around nano-policy.

Stucky Birthday Highlights

To honor Professor Galen Stucky on his 70th birthday, a Symposium on Recent Advances in Nanoscale Materials Research, was held in the Marine Science Building at UCSB. The morning started out with a hilarious video about alkali metals shown by James Dye, a retired professor from Michigan State University, another powerhouse in inorganic materials research. Jackie Ying announced an upcoming symposium on Nanoscience at the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore. Angela Belcher and Sam Stupp gave short but fantastic talks about their research.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Comments from an NNI Architect

On Tuesday, Dr. Neal Lane (former science advisor to Pres. Clinton) spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center as part of an event organized by its Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. Lane outlined three steps to avoid the "possible occurrence of an environmental or safety problem that could reduce public confidence or financial investment" in nano. These included more money for EHS research and a plan to "infuse nanotechnology education" into all school curricula. You can read more about what Lane suggested at:

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Professor Norman Wagner at the University of Delaware has found a way to enhance the protective properties of kevlar by coating it with a shear thickening fluid. The fluid is actually a supension of nanometer length ceramic particles in ethylene glycol that coats the fabric and can move smoothly at low speed but forms log jam structures at high speed and behaves like a stiff solid. The technology has already been licensed by Armor Holdings, a leading manufacturer of military and law enforcement products. Youtube and other sites have a video that shows off the composite material. I have read a peer reviewed paper about it and think that this could be easy enough to do that highschool science projects could be based on this technology or chemistry set type kits could be made to make little squares of inpenetrable kevlar at home as a novelty.

Dreaming of a Nanotech Christmas

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies had a web cast today discussing what persuades the public to buy (or not buy) nanotech products. Some thoughts:

Steven Currall (Professor in the Faculty of Engineering Sciences at University College London) asked the salient question "is the public obsessed with risk?" Drawing on a paper that appears n the December 2006 issue of Nature Nanotechnology, he concludes "no." People, he says, consider both risks as well as benefits when buying "nanotech products" (makes sense to me).

Neal Lane (former Presidential Science Advisor to Clinton) also spoke on policy implications re: nano. He asked whether nano's potential would be lost amidst the welter of concerns about risk and the failure to educate/engage the public. He made the case that the public is currently neutral about nano and only needs more information to reach a (presumably) positive conclusion.

A few thoughts - while I tuned in late (the web page wouldn't load properly for some reason), I heard no reference to the work (or the existence) at either the CNS-UCSB or its counterpart at ASU. Although there were calls for a better and more coordinated national strategy to deal with EHS issues, I found this ironic given that neither of the two national centers founded to deal with societal implications were referred to.

Finally, I recalled that, about a year ago, a colleague at a conference asked me if all this interest in nano-and-society wasn't part of an effort to create future nano-consumers. At the time, I thought this was a cynical interpretation. Sure, this might be part of the motivation. However, what I heard in this web cast is encouraging me to think about this more seriously. How much of this focus on EHS is driven by concerns high up in the federal government that some event - even a bogus (i.e. no-nano) event - might, as Lane put it, derail "nano's potential to revolutionize all other technologies"?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Nano and Consumer Dreams

Tomorrow, at 2:30 EST, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies will feature a web cast. You can see it via this URL:

What might make this interesting - remember that WW puts out a great deal of materials, news clippings, reports, etc. on nano, especially with regard to EHS and risk issues - is that the topic is "what makes the public embrace and buy nanotechnology?"

I find this interesting as much of the focus thus far has been on the supply side - what is being produced, what are economic benefits, etc. This webcast potentially presents the story from a different angle - that of the consumer. Commodities do not appear unbidden on our shelves. Behind each one is some perceived consumer demand. And understanding what consumers want (and don't want) is one way to analyzing what gets produced. In other words, focusing on the interplay between consumer demand and industry response might yield a more complex and informative view of the nano-enterprise.

A follow-up on this line of questioning would be: what are consumers thinking of when they "buy nano?" Is it objectively better products? Or is it the newness, the novelty, and the sexiness of nano? And, if it is the latter, what is their vision of nano that motivated them? My guess is that underneath all of it is the glitzy, sci-fi, nanobot vision. Public imagination informs and shapes public policy. QED.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

NSF Report on Nano's Societal Implications

A "new" NSF report on nanotechnology's societal implications is available on-line in two volumes. The work stems from an NSF-sponsored conference held in December 2003. While some of the work here will be familiar - indeed, because the meeting was held three years ago before either CNS was funded, some of the issues might seem a little dated - there are some worthwhile essays. See especially those in Volume 2 which present "individual perspectives" on a range of nano-and-society issues. These include short pieces from a wide range of academics, business people, industry folks, et al..

The reports (along with a similar work stemming from a September 2000 societal implications meeting) can be found at: