TCS Daily

Missing Out?

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - October 8, 2003 12:00 AM

We are already beginning to see how nanotechnology can revolutionize our lives in the near future. It could serve as the means for fighting the flu virus. Nanotechnology could help produce devices that could either fix or clone themselves, making it easier to repair and replace parts on a plane, an oil tanker, or to clean up environmental disasters. Once the nanotech market begins to take off, by some estimates it could reach $1 trillion in a little over ten years. And in the event that big money doesn't excite you, there is always the prospect of nanopants to get the heart racing.


All of which makes one wonder whether the United States is doing all it can to quickly and successfully realize the potential benefits of nanotechnology.


In many ways, the signs are encouraging. The Senate has approved $10 million for a research consortium among the University of Texas branches at Dallas, Arlington and Austin, and Rice University. As a whole, the United States government spends nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars per year on nanotech research, with private companies kicking in even more to advance the research along, so funding probably is not at issue. And according to this report, nanotech advocates and experts certainly have a pipeline in Washington to be able to push research and development on nanotechnology.


At the same time, there is more that can be done in bringing about the promise of nanotechnology. For one thing, Congress could work to make the consideration of legislation regarding nanotechnology more of a priority, instead of treating it like a secondary issue. The Senate Commerce Committee -- whose jurisdiction encompasses science and technology issues -- recently put a four-year funding bill affecting nanotechnology research and development on the back burner. While this is hardly a death knell for the bill -- and while there will certainly be an appropriations bill for nanotech R&D approved by the Commerce Committee, and by the full Senate -- this action reflects the unfortunate tendency among some policymakers to think of nanotech as a side issue deserving of only secondary attention.


This is a terrible mistake because it deprives us of the opportunity as a society to learn more about the promise of nanotechnology, as well as the potential dangers that need to be avoided. Not many people know about nanotech, and some fear that the creation of self-replicating systems might cross certain ethical and security boundaries. Putting aside legislation that affects the development of nanotechnology means putting aside the opportunity to debate the ethical and security issues that accompany nanotech research and development. This leads to an impoverished public debate on the issue of nanotech, and a less informed public -- a state of affairs that is inexcusable given nanotech's tremendous potential to change lives, and change the economy for the better.


So what can be done? The Bush administration should encourage public discussion about nanotechnology issues and related concerns through very highly publicized White House-sponsored technology summits, speeches about nanotech, and increased participation between the public and private sector on nanotechnology. Specifically, the Bush administration and Congress would be do well to take advantage of the pre-existing literature addressing the fundamentals of self-replicating systems and their potential dangers, as well as literature addressing how to ameliorate any threats that may exist from self-replicating, and information on how national security issues are influenced by the development of nanotechnology.


Nanotechnology poses some serious ethical and security questions for us to resolve as a society, but when all is said and done, the benefits of nanotech can definitely outweigh the risks if we are committed to a full and public debate on the issue. Policymakers should make more of an effort to bring nanotech to the front burner as a public issue so that informed judgments can be made on how best to encourage the development of the technology. While nanotech may only be a blip on the policy landscape at this time, it will loom large as an issue in the near future. If we want to be in the best position possible to deal with the challenges and promises of nanotechnology in the future, it behooves us to do our homework now.


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