TCS Daily

Give Thanks for Small Victories

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - November 26, 2003 12:00 AM

Last week Congress passed nanotechnology legislation that President Bush is expected to sign shortly (you can see a copy of the bill here). It's a victory for people who favor the responsible development of molecular nanotechnology. But it's a small victory, a nano-victory you might say, in the great scheme of things.


The bill does a lot of good. It authorizes money for federal nanotechnology research in a variety of programs (and, importantly, calls for the maintenance of a "balanced nanotechnology research
portfolio"). It calls for research not only into technology, but into ethics and societal implications, establishing a research program to:


identify ethical, legal, environmental, and other societal concerns
related to nanotechnology, and ensuring that the results of such
research are widely disseminated. (Section 2 (b))


I think that this sort of research is valuable. It's true, of course, that we won't be able to anticipate all the issues that nanotechnology will present until they're much closer to reality. On the other hand, there are advantages to looking at the questions now, while we're still behind an almost Rawlsian veil of ignorance regarding who will benefit and who will not -- at least, compared to the way things will be later. That's something I've written about here, and here, as well as here and here -- and even provided video interviews along with a column here. (And I've written a much longer paper here.) So, naturally, I'm happy to see the subject get attention.


I hope, of course, that it will be the right kind of attention. I don't know whether nano-ethics should be considered a part of bioethics, but I'm pretty sure that the bioethicists will think so. Regardless, scientific ethicists have something of an unacknowledged conflict of interest: It's in their professional interest to find ethical problems with new technologies, since then they'll have something to talk about, and it's in their interest to propose laws to address those problems, so that people will have to listen. Given the not very impressive record of some biotechnology critics, that's something to keep in mind. On the other hand, some government studies get it right. Let's hope that they serve as the model here.


Another important issue in the bill is the provision, in Section 5(b), for what is called a "study on molecular self-assembly." I'm not sure where this language comes from: the bill calls for "a one-time study to determine the technical feasibility of molecular self-assembly for the manufacture of materials and devices at the molecular scale." I think that this means a study on self-replicating molecular-scale systems, but self-assembly isn't really self-replication. Given that self-assembling nanodevices have already been demonstrated, taking a narrow view of this language seems unlikely to accomplish much: It's like performing a study to determine the feasibility of integrated circuit chips. Been there, done that. Presumably, the broader interpretation of the language will obtain. If it doesn't, that may be an early sign that federal officials aren't really serious about developing what most people would consider to be true molecular manufacturing. Let's hope it doesn't.


The bill also promotes increased oversight of the field, creating both a national advisory panel on nanotechnology, and a National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, with responsibility for filing regular reports with Congress and the White House on what is going on. Though there's nothing sexy about these, they could play an important role in promoting the development of nanotechnology if they do their jobs, identifying important technical and legal issues and helping to encourage the kind of interdisciplinary communication that nanotechnology is likely to require. Or, they could just be a bunch of bureaucrats who will sit on their duffs and do nothing -- or worse yet, actively interfere. As is often the case in such matters, staffing drives policy, so look to see who's involved.


Nanotechnology enthusiasts, of whom I count myself one, are understandably pleased at the recognition -- and the money -- that this bill represents. But in truth, in the coming years the future of nanotechnology is more likely to be driven by what happens in the lab, and perhaps in the capital markets, than by what government bureaucrats do. The bureaucrats may help things a little if they get it right, or hurt things a lot if they get it wrong. Keep an eye on them, as they keep an eye on nanotechnology.


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