Tuesday, May 31, 2005

THE NATIONAL NANOTECHNOLOGY INITIATIVE AT FIVE YEARS

THE NATIONAL NANOTECHNOLOGY INITIATIVE AT FIVE YEARS: Assessment and Recommendation of the National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel, May, 2005.

NOT RECOMMENDED

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Policy (PCAST) has been in existence since September 2001 and has been advising the President on matters involving science and technology policy for nearly a half decade. This includes the National Nanotechnology Initiative. On July 23, 2004, President Bush designated PCAST to acts as the NNAP.

Where has the media been on this? While I can think of a handful of good reasons to reduce bureaucracy and redundant layers of review that might have justified this decision, how can anyone read this report as anything more than a public relations publication? The NNAP, also known as PCAST, published an assessment of the NNI, a program they helped guide.

This might have been problematic had the report been controversial. Generally, it isn’t though I did find a bit of it troubling.

On p. 29 under flexibility, the report includes this statement. “Constraints on the levels of Federal funding can be expected to continue, and for the NNI to succeed priorities must be made and real opportunities pursued, even if it means scaling back or eliminating lesser priorities as the program moves forward. The overarching goal of scientific and engineering excellence is what must be remembered.” They report about 8 percent of the NNI budget is associated with SEIN research. They add on p. 32: “The amount is greater if the portion of research that is related to, but not primarily directed at, such concerns is also included.” Whether this is true or not, it is impossible to assess from the document itself and seems to me to be a “three card Monte” misdirect.

While there is some rhetoric about societal implications, I found a few things worth mentioning here and in subsequent writings. First, the report tends to use term “societal implications” generously. However, on the same page mentioned above, the use the term “societal implications and the environmental and health effects of nanotechnology” as if the two are separate conceptually. On p. 35, at least half of the SEIN budget “or 4 percent of the total budget … [will be] aimed at understanding and addressing the potential risks posed by nanotechnology to health and the environment.” Generally, this is a good idea and leave $41 million in the FY 2006 budget for “other” SEIN work. Next, on p. 36, $28 million becomes earmarked for educational programs. Now, we are down to $13 million. Some of this amount will go to public engagement and the rest to ETHICAL, LEGAL, AND OTHER SOCIETAL IMPLICATIONS. The paragraph (p. 38) addressing this category could not be more under-informed leading one to assume the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) numbering 45 nanotechnology experts did not include SEIN professionals.

A careful reading of the document stresses economic and workforce issues as the dominant category of SEIN research which worries this researcher. It would be troublesome if SEIN research over the next few years becomes the term under which technology transfer was funded.

There is a need for more social science research and ethicists have a powerful role to play as theorists and as advisors. It would be incredibly unfortunate to discover that the SEIN initiative becomes a government funded public relations project in perception management sating the public and defusing risks of protests and boycotts.

A good friend of mine once asked me: Is the NNI an economic policy in search of a justification or a scientific one? I still don’t know the answer to that question. We may be able to approach the end of a smooth transition to a nanotechnological world by raising the level of public as stakeholders rather than assuring them “don’t worry, be happy.” If the public determines that it has been handled by government bureaucrats rather than taken seriously there may be serious repercussions when 2006 and 2008 roll along.

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