TCS Daily

The Nano-Ostrich Approach Doesn't Work

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - February 5, 2004 12:00 AM

Ostriches don't really bury their heads in the sand when confronted with danger. People, however, sometimes do.

Certainly that seems to be what's happening with the nanotechnology industry. Last week, I wrote about prospects for nanotechnology, and in particular about what I saw as the nanotechnology business community's rather shortsighted efforts to dampen public debate on the subject. I thought it was rather clear that my column, like all my nanotechnology writings, came from a generally pro-nanotechnology standpoint, though I concluded:

[W]hile I feel a certain degree of sympathy for the dinosaurs, I think that if the nanotechnology business community, because of the PR strategy that it has chosen, finds itself scissored between the scientists and visionaries on one side, and the environmentalists on the other, it will have cause to regret its rather shortsighted PR strategy. It's too early to predict that outcome now. But, like a lot of things relating to nanotechnology, it's not too early to worry about it.

In fact, it wasn't very much too soon at all -- because if you read this Washington Post article by Rick Weiss, which appeared just a few days after my column, you can see exactly that scissoring starting to take place. The article, which is well worth reading (as is this sidebar on near-term applications), shows the industry being criticized not only by environmental groups, but by long-time nanotechnology boosters. And, in fact, it suggests that Monsanto's problems with public fears regarding its genetically modified organisms are a harbinger of what might happen with regard to nanotechnology.

I'd hate to see that, because I think that the scares regarding genetically modified organisms like Monsanto's are almost entirely bogus. I also think that most of the fears relating to nanotechnology are bogus, too. (You can read more of my thoughts on the subject here, here, and here). And if nanotechnology is held up because of bogus fears, it could cost millions of lives that could potentially be saved by new technologies and treatments.

But if Monsanto fell victim to enviro-alarmism, it did so for a simple reason. To be blunt, its public-relations strategy was dumb. It (along with its industry in general) chose to characterize its critics as kooks (a fair characterization, in some cases, but not a wise one) and to avoid straightforward public engagement -- much less anticipation -- of potential criticisms.

As I mentioned in my last column, I'm afraid that the nanotechnology industry is headed down the same road. Not only did the industry secure the neutralization of feasibility-study language in the recently-passed nanotechnology bill, and not only is it failing to respond to its critics properly, it also seems self-destructively anxious to alienate any potential allies it might have among the nanotechnology visionary community, too.

This has manifested itself in all sorts of public and not-so-public ways, but a couple of recent developments are particularly alarming. In a recent article in Small Times, the nanotechnology industry trade organization, NanoBusiness Alliance representative Mark Modzelewski characterized those unhappy with the feasibility study language as "bloggers, Drexlerians, pseudo-pundits, panderers and other denizens of their mom's basements." Then, my column of last week inspired some rather intemperate email comments by Modzelewski (reproduced here), which suggest to me that the industry response is becoming downright irrational. And self-defeating.

That's too bad, because the nanotechnology industry isn't just another batch of widget-makers. I actually think that it's pretty important for it to get this stuff right. I'd hate to see the future of the nanotechnology industry -- at least, the American nanotechnology industry -- suffer because of a combination of political shortsightedness and uncontrolled personal pique. Indeed, the amount of hostility that I'm seeing here makes me wonder whether nanotechnology visionaries should be rejoicing at the absence of a molecular-manufacturing feasibility study, rather than bemoaning that loss, since there seem to be people who are absolutely determined to maintain its impossibility.

At any rate, though I don't live in my mom's basement, I also don't have the power to make the industry, or its representatives, see reason here. But I do think that the industry's current strategy is deeply misguided, and that it's not just likely to backfire -- it's already in the process of backfiring. I hope that they'll change their stance before it's too late.


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