Monday, February 21, 2005

The Science of Small Things

Irish Council for Science, Technology, and Innovation (ICSTI, THE SCIENCE OF SMALL THINGS, July 2004, 75 pp.


This report rates the potential of nanotechnology enabled products and processes exported by Irish enterprises exceeding Euros 13 million by 2010 which is more than 10% of the value of current exports. As such, the report attempts to justify an all-out assault to capture market shares. It includes a national roadmap from tools and materials to applications of tools and materials in a variety of industries.

It claims 114 full-time researchers in 10 recognized groups engaged in nanotechnology research. With funding at Euros 90 million, these people are training an estimate 250 postgraduates. Ireland claims two start-ups with eight spin-outs in the next five years.

It addresses the wider community of stakeholders but in concept only. There is no delineation of whom or what composes this community beyond "relevant government departments, their agencies, professional research organizations, indigenous and multinational industry and the wider community." Again, who composes this wider community? Later, it add that the Nanotechnology Task Force agreed on recommendations that "will enable the key stakeholders to work together to exploit the nanotechnology opportunity in Ireland." The use of the term "exploit" becomes more meaningful later in the report when (p. 71) it envisaged responsible stakeholders undertake a series of recommendations and public awareness defined as "the promotion of nanotechnology in a manner that ensures its development as an important activity in Ireland..." A few pages later (74), it includes in its national strategy: "the promotion of informed consideration by the wider community of the opportunities and challenges presented by with a view to transparent regulation that attracts the support of all."

It admits that much of nanotechnology may be modern scientists and engineers hyping their findings and repackaging existing and long-established scientific and engineering principles. This trend will be addressed later in a later posting.

I did like the citation on p. 13 from Deutsch Bank which claimed the market for nanomaterials alone (sans tools) was $0.12 trillion in 2002 with this market growing at an annual rate of 15% to $0.37 trillion by 2010. On the same page, the report cites the Department of Trade and Industry (UK) that at present 1% of all medical devices are nanotechnology-enabled. While I am unprepared to vouch for these estimates, they are worth some greater investigation.

The report examines a set of sectors: electronics, photonics, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, agri-food, polymers and plastics, and construction. The most interesting observation here deals with food. The Irish food industry has been hampered by being 3 days removed from major markets in Europe. However, advances in nanotechnology enhanced preservatives and additives and intelligent packaging would leverage those markets. Of course, this also means that it would leverage other agricultural suppliers into major markets as well. The implication this may have to agricultural commodity markets and food surpluses is also worth more study.

When it comes to safety consideration, there is little concern expressed in this report. Generally, no significant short-term regulatory issues for nanotools. Few significant short-term regulatory issues for nanomaterials, nanodevices, and nanosystems (p. 67). It does call on regulators to focus on metrology and accreditation of labs providing independent testing and ensuring existing regulations are sufficiently robust to protect individuals in preparation, handling, and disposal of nanomaterials. It does admit some potential ethical or environmental implications from convergence and concern for privacy and security rights from ambient communication and computing.

In summary, this is a promotional document. Societal and ethical considerations are tagged as a way to promote the technology. Wider stakeholder participation is added as a way to maximize the promotion. Overall, the document adds very little to the nanotechnology corpus of reports and testimony.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Nanotechnology and the Poor

Nanotechnology and the Poor: Opportunities and Risks, January 2005, Meridian Institute,


NANOTECHNOLOGY AND THE POOR is a working paper and the issues it raises will be examined in greater detail at a forthcoming meeting in Alexandria, Egypt.

In summary, it claims nanotechnology is becoming a huge phenomenon and stakeholders might want to engage it upstream. It complains there is little effort to connect the development of nanotechnology with the development of poor nations and neighborhoods. Stakeholders in the South are serving nearly no role in nanotechnology.

This is the first issue I would like to examine. Who and what are "stakeholders" in this debate? It seems everywhere I go I hear more and more rhetoric about involving "stakeholders" but I remain puzzled about who they are. It seems problematic to say everyone is a stakeholder. Simply put, the public is not interested in science and technology decision making per se. While the public may express interest for a brief period of time when some scientific issue is salient to their lives, that seems to soon wear off.

This commentary is not meant to suggest that Southern voices are not relevant to development strategies for nanotechnology. However, if everyone is a stakeholder, are we obligated to institute consensus conferences and other deliberative experiments for everyone? If so, then we are talking about a massive science literacy experiment that is simply beyond our resources. If we are not able to bring in the greater vision of stakeholders, what do we do? If we bring them in and they simply refuse to participate, what do we do?

Do we stop development until some time when they are prepared to interact and participate? Is there some negotiated middle ground here? When we involve stakeholders and they decide against a technology, will government and private industry be expected to pull back to recede? Will all governments and industries abide by public sentiment? Boycotts and protests are not universally effective.

Greater still, what if all this rhetoric about involve stakeholders merely is being spouted to quell protest? What is all this talk about stakeholders merely perception management? Is this just another example of symbolic politics?

Back to Meridian.

They make a case that application of nanotechnology might produce safer drinking water, cheaper lighter low-cost solar cells, slowly release drugs, etc. Meridian also tags the Helmut Kaiser Consultancy that provided much of the information for ETC's recent "Down on the Farm" and summarizes some of risks mentioned in both those documents. Meridian also summarizes some of the studies on carbon nanotubes and toxicity issues. Meridian mentioned the reductions in raw materials inputs and its impact on developing economies and recaps some of the public awareness and regulatory challenges facing developing economies.

The report ends with a section of roles and responsibilities including governments connecting nanotechnology programs with official development assistance programs. It mentions "pro-poor business" and corporate social responsibility as two business phenomena that might be used to bring the benefits to the poor. The report also questions the rate of patenting and its implications for products for the poor. Finally, it reviews the few NGOS drawn to the subject, few of which identify issues of the poor.

In general, it concludes we may need to go upstream together. The global dialogue is occurring but it may take more than international meetings to wrestle some of the benefits of nanotechnology for the poor.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The NAS Meeting

Interesting group of folks. The itinerary is found on

While the government, business, and academic community was well represented, so were the interests of the Foresight devotees. Drexler was there with Mize, Phoenix, Forrest, and Jacobstein.

Now, I have a reputation of being tough on folks which is probable the result of my debate training and the fact that i have coached intercollegiate debate for over a quarter century. I need to admit that they presented a very strong case to include molecular manufacturing as an important component within the NNI.

Celia Merzbacher and Clayton Teagues opened the meeting testifying on the state and nature of the NNI. Neither spent any time discussing the controversy associated with directed assembly to produce products on the macroscale.

The next session was about "Establishing a Common Language." John Randall from Zyvex spun the corporate line. He discussed the need for massive parallelism and how the goal was assembly with degrees of freedom in 3 dimensions. Ari Equicha from USoCalifornia discussed his work with sensor actuator networks on the nanoscience. Ned Seeman from NYU discussed his work with DNA structures.

On the second day, Scott Mize from Foresight and Sean Murdock of the NanoBusiness Alliance
"Set the Scene." Mize discussed the new directions Foresight Institute is taking while Murdock discussed current efforts on the Hill to encourage legislative support and a more pragmatic approach to nanoscience.

At 9:30 AM, Drexler did a solo act. He began with the usual biology as an existence proof position, referencing compex biological phenomena, such as ribosomes. He shows the now infamous movie that follows a nanofactory through steps to produce a laptop computer. He was challenged for proof of principle experiments and claimed there were no new principles here.

Separating proofs of existence, from proofs of principle, from proofs of concepts seems to be one of the problems with molecular manufacturing as a persuasive proof (more of this in a later post).

Late morning, "Theoretical Possibilities" were discussed by Don Eigler of IBM made it clear there is a difference between theorizing, speculating/speculizing, and fantasizing and challenges the syllogistic proofs offered by Drexler and Foresight. Peter Cumings from Vanderbilt challenged Drexler with a fluctuation theorum (a system will exhibit negative entropy production). Drexler challenged him and there was no resolution. Ralph Merkle from Georgia Tech discussed the usual line on nanomachines and warned that researchers are staying away from molecular manufacturing because of its negative valence in the scientific community. Chris Phoenix from CRN discussed many of the same concepts found on the web site he shares with his colleague, Mike Treder. I suggest you visit that site for their line: (

After lunch, we heard from David Forrest of IMM (not very impressive) , Carlo Montemagno from UCLA about his work in synthetic biology, and Christian Schafmeister from Pittsburgh and his work in synthetic chemistry. Montemagno and Schafmesiter blew everyone's socks off and I suggest you cruise the WWW to learn more.

On day three, we had a morning session. I led off and was followed by Neil Jacobstein of IMM, and David Rajeski from the Woodrow Wilson Institute and this presentation can be found at Lovy's nanobot blog site. It is called "NanoSight, NanoScheme and NanoHype" and can be found at

Concluding remarks were mostly generous and some were interesting. For example, there was the observation that we need upstream involvement from government agencies and the focus of the meeting should be on the transition from passive to active nanoparticles.

The Beginning - Molecular Manufacturing

Just returned from a meeting of the National Academy of Science and the National Materials Advisory Board. The meeting was before a Committee to Review the National Nanotechnology Initiative - Workshop on Molecular Self-Assembly (February 9-11, 2005). The purpose of the meeting seemed to be to define "molecular manufacturing" and to decide its feasibility. Overall, the discussions seemed to favor the incremental approach toward a mature form of molecular nanotechnology.

The consensus from the meeting was that there we remain far away (though how far is debatable) from molecular manufacturing in the form envisioned by K. Eric Drexler. There was some discussion about whether the NSF and other entitied of government are willing to fund the Drexlerean model of nanotechnology research though it was not resolved.

Next post will highlight some of the discussions and presentations.