Tuesday, May 31, 2005


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


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.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Madison Consensus Conference (April 2005)

I am back. I have recently been released from teaching responsibilities for the remainder of the calendar year to focus my scholarship on the “Communication of Nanotechnology.” As such, I will have a bunch of articles out there and will report their status here. In addition, I will review materials here as well.

REPORT OF THE MEDISON AREA CITIZEN CONSENSUS CONFERENCE ON NANOPTECHNOLOGY. April 24, 2004. http://www.lafollette.wisc.edu/research/Nano/nanoreport42805.pdf.


A consensus conference based on the Danish model was held in April and involved thirteen citizens. For most of you, think of a large focus group. I have some serious misgivings about this form of deliberative polling. It is based on the assumption “lay people are able to understand complicated technical matters and sometimes can offer insights that experts do not consider” (p. 1.). First, it depends on the definition of “understand”. I have learned over the last two decades to speak competently on the toxicology of nanoparticles (an undergraduate degree in biology has helped), but I am not sure I can vet the findings of a study with any degree of reliability. Second, we must ask ourselves why it is necessary to “understand complicated technical matters” in order to enter the discussion over science and technology policy making. I have argued elsewhere that there are many levels in the process of inquiry, and it is not necessary to be competent, set aside being expert, on all levels to participate as a stakeholder. The entire system of representative democracy practiced here and elsewhere is based on distributed intelligence feeding back into a calculus of decision making which while hardly flawless may be good enough to approximate “informed” decision making. In addition, when the Madison authors note lay people “sometimes can offer insights that experts do not consider, they hit on two more reservations worth mentioning here.

First, if said insights are not considered by experts then my argument above on levels of inquiry seems validated given the power associated with expertise in policy making. I have examined the heuristics regarding the general public and science and toxicology elsewhere and will continue to do so.

Second and more importantly, can supposes capacity. Even the Madison report noted “the organizers…hope that government officials, scientists, the media, and area residents will pay careful attention to the conclusions and recommendations.” The real issue is whether these experiments do anything more than expose a very small, often self-selected and unrepresentative group of people to an issue.

At 13 people a shot and 4 days each, it would take about 5.6 million of these to cover the current U.S. population. Even if we assume only 10 percent of the entire population function as interested stakeholders in science and technology decision making that is still over a half million consensus conferences.

My concern remains government officials have never indicated any interest in the view of the public toward broad government science policy. I am not suggesting bureaucrats ignore public input on localized issues, but in terms of national ones, unless it taps into purportedly wasteful government spending as befell the Supercollider, elected officials don’t seem to care. However, experiments like these do convince the public they have a voice so symbolically it does reduce some backlash potential, so it does have some stakeholding function. As whether they are are any relationships between the results of deliberative polling and scientists and other area residents, there is little reason to assume much transference. As to the media, they barely reported the event outside of the Madison area.

As to the normative conclusions from the conference, they are highly predictable. Whether they reflect the background information selection process, the experts selected to participate, or other variables, it is often difficult to assess. As more of these events occur, we will gather more information to build theories and test the validity of the entire model.

For more information on this event, check http://www.communicationagents.com/tom_atlee/2005/

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Commercialization: A Primer for Lawyers & Investors

John Miller, K. J. Cho, and Michael McGehee, "A Realistic Assessment of the Commercialization of Nanotechnology: A Primer for Lawyers and Investors," NANOTECHNOLOGY LAW AND BUSINESS JOURNAL, Vol. 1, Number 1, 2004, n. pag. Electronic version.


Recently, when asked by an Executive Department officer to recommend a readable article on nanotechnology that skips the hype, I recommended the article by Miller et al. My rationale: well-written and comprehensive analysis of the building blocks of nanotechnology and the market applications of nanotechnology from sensing to energy. The authors even contextualize the Drexler version of molecular manufacturing without resorting to insults.

This is a must read for people who want to learn about nanotechnology and may not have time to read longer works like Soft Machines (Oxford UP, 2004) by Richard Jones from Sheffield. The article, like the book, is hyper-free.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Nano-Savvy Journalism

Finals are over, so it's back to blogging.

Nathan Tinker, "NanoSavvy Journalism," BEST OF NANO WEEK Volume 2, Number 4, April 20, 2005 (see http://unspun.mithuro.com/content/view/48/33/).


This is a brief report but an excellent one. Mr. Tinker begins by noting "in 2004, no fewer than 12,343 stories were printed about nanotechnology ... up from 7,631 in 2003." He adds "in the first two months of 2005 alone nanotechnology has been referenced more than 2,600 times in the popular press."

Tinker goes on to criticize the publications be condemning them for providing little information and confusing readers. I would add there is an incredible amount of redundancy as well. At the USC NanoCenter we have a team of researchers whose primary job is to find everything in print and read much of it. I am one of those researchers.

One of the most important statements made by Tinker is his explanation "Nanoscience is not nanotechnology."

I have this argument with researchers all the time. For example, one of them will do a search for nanoscience and then report thousands upon thousands of articles in the scientific, esp. the chemical, literature. I tell them they are wrong, that is nanoscience, not applied nanoscience and definitely not nanotechnology. Too often the ideology of the researcher commits them to over- claiming the breadth of the field. Nanotechnology is still a young discipline and it is not overwhelmingly difficult to develop a competency in it.

And it was a pleasure to find someone else, in this case Tinker, making the same claim I have for about a year. "Nanoscience is the study of phenomena and manipulation of materials at atomic, molecular and macromolecular scales, where properties differ significantly from those at a larger scale. Nanotechnologies are the design, characterization, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlling shape and size at nanometer scale."

This short paper is incredibly useful because it is direct and does answer FAQs on nanotechnology. I plan of directing inquiries to it to help resolve some of the more common misunderstandings about nanotechnology. I am so impressed I ordered The Nanotech compnay's new book, Nanotech Fortunes: Make Yours in the Boom, and plan to review it on this blog.

Monday, May 2, 2005


Canadian Program on Genomics and Global Health at the University of Toronto Joint Center for Bioethics, "Nanotechnology's miniature answers to developing world's biggest problems," PhysOrg.com, April 12, 2005. Retrieved from http://www.physorg.com/news3681.html on April 20, 2005.

Nanohype is not only about exaggerated negative assessments of nanotechnology but also the highly positive ones. While it is completely understandable when we hear industry spokespersons and government bureaucrats hailing the positive aspect of applied nanoscience, one is taken a bit aback when this same type of rhetoric is espoused by an independent group of academics and researchers.

Let's not blame PhysOrg entirely. The report can be found all over the web in has appeared in whole and part in multiple hardcopy publications as well.

As well, the award goes to the Canadian Program on Genomics and Global Health at the University of Toronto Joint Center for Bioethics and I have been a fan of their work (see March 28,2005 post). In this case, they did an Internet survey of nanotechnology applications in development worldwide with the greatest potential for the poor. The study found: "several nanotechnology applications will help people in developing countries tackle their most urgent problems--extreme poverty and hunger, child mortality, environmental degradation and diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS."

According to Peter Singer, "The targeted application of nanotechnology has enormous potential to bring about major improvements in the living standards of people in the developing world."

First, this methodology is highly questionable and without any control over the sample we must take these findings with a proverbial grain of salt. This author participated in this survey. Second, these findings ignore both the time frames for this discussion and the politics involved in making predictions of this sort. When the first nano-products on the market have been luxury and vanity products like stain-free pants, better tennis rackets and balls, etc., we need to seriously question whether the truckle down scenario which has been proven so false in economics will be any more accurate in technology transfer and commercialization.

The report lists the top ten and reminds me of Jay Leno's The Tonight Show routine except this version is not intended to be humorous.

Take, for example, number 3 (which I ranked number 1). According to Salamanca-Buentello, "More than one-third of the population of rural areas in Africa, Asia, and Latin American has no clean water, and two million children die each year from water-related diseases, such as diarrhea, cholera, typhoid, and scistosomiasis, which result from a lack of adequate water sources and sanitation." The report claims that "Nano-membranes and nano-clays are inexpensive, potable and easily cleaned systems that purify, detoxify and desalinate water more efficiently than conventional bacterial and viral filters.... Titanium dioxide and magnetic nano-particles systems could decompose organic pollutants and remove salts and heavy metals from liquids, enabling the use of heavily contaminated and salt water for irrigation and drinking."

While this would be wonderful, it is important to situate discussion within the societal-political setting that nano-products will enter. The first filters will be commercial products sold for American homes and municipal water treatment. Unless, countries, like Israel, focus directly on nanoscience and desalination, as they seem to be doing, it will be some time before nanotechnology is applied there.

Instead of continuing to harp on the wonderful implications nanoscience may hold, it is time to assess how we can get to the benefits from where we are currently situated. The drone needs to be toned down and the debate over long-term and transformative benefits to society needs to add the variable of implementation. Too much of what appears in the media ignore too much of the reality of nanotechnology and this is merely an example.