Perception may be nano’s biggest enemy, leaders tell Congress

WASHINGTON, April 10, 2003 — Nanotechnology was both attacked and praised Wednesday during the first-ever congressional hearing dedicated to the industry’s potential impact on society.

Lawmakers heard testimony from industry and research leaders as it debates a nanotechnology bill in Congress that addresses some of these issues.

Some speakers worried about the way popular culture has already latched onto nano as a technology that could enable a nightmarish vision of the future.

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“The novel ‘Prey’ describes a chilling scenario in which swarms of nanorobots begin preying on living creatures and reproducing,” said Vicki Colvin, director of Rice University’s Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, referring to this year’s best-selling Michael Crichton novel. “This is science fiction, not science fact. However, the public relations nightmare it could spawn is just as frightening to me, a nanotechnology researcher, as nanorobots might be to some people.”

Another speaker, Langdon Winner, political science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, wondered aloud whether nanotechnology was the best way to spend public funds. “I wonder if a lot of this money (on nanotechnology research) will be badly wasted in a time of great need,” he told the full House Science Committee

The hearing was an attempt by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., the committee’s chairman, to air environmental, ethical and societal concerns associated with nanotechnology before committee members vote on the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003. The bill, he said, will be “marked up” on April 30. That’s when lawmakers have a chance to change legislation before voting.

The bill would, among other things, make the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) a permanent part of the federal government. Similar legislation is sitting in the Senate, sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and George Allen, R-Va. The Senate is expected to hold its first nanotechnology hearing of the year next month.

Nanotechnology advocates have long talked about the need for researchers to delve into these issues, using concerns surrounding genetically engineered food as an object lesson in how not to proceed. The bioengineering crowd was arrogant, nanotechnology advocates often say, and avoided potentially explosive issues. Activists latched onto a range of issues, and by the time the scientists got involved it was too late.

By contrast, the researchers, entrepreneurs, social scientists and politicians toiling in nanotechnology are pledging to swaddle nanotechnology with debate about potential problems as the science marches forward. The NNI from its inception in 2000, for example, included social and ethical issues as part of its purview, and it even published a 370-page book about the subject in 2001.

After the meeting, NNI Director Mike Roco said that the program spent $30 million to study nanotech’s societal and educational implications in 2002, $35 million in 2003 and is set to spend $40 million in 2004. Spending on research related to nanotechnology and the environment jumped from $50 million in 2002 to $55 million in 2003, and is poised to hit $60 million in 2004.

Roco, who attended the meeting as an observer, said the group testifying represented a cross-section of the nanotech community, but more voices will be heard.

Ray Kurzweil, an entrepreneur and artificial intelligence pioneer, said that the world has “no choice but to confront the challenge of guiding nanotechnology in a constructive direction.

“Any broad attempt to relinquish nanotechnology will only push it underground, which would interfere with the benefits while actually making the dangers worse.”

The “same voices” that dominated the debate about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are now targeting nanotechnology, he said. For the science to thrive, he said, the debate about it must be open. The “reflexive anti-technology stance” that characterizes one side of the debate about GMOs “will not be helpful in balancing the benefits and risks of nanoparticle technology.”

A priority for lawmakers should be to fund a “feasibility review” in which molecular manufacturing’s “proponents and critics can present their technical cases to a group of unbiased physicists for analysis,” said Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Institute in California.

“Until this issue has been put to rest, neither a funded molecular manufacturing research and development project nor effective study of societal implications can be carried out,” she testified.

Most of the roughly 15 lawmakers who showed up for the hearing asked questions.

But Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, R-Calif., went on the attack, asking, “Am I the only one who is skeptical of the social sciences here?”

“We’re injecting bureaucracies into the sciences,” he said, adding that bureaucracies are only good at “transforming pure energy into solid waste.”

Rohrbacher was not pleased with an idea pushed by Winner to form “citizen panels” to explore and debate social, environmental and ethical issues alongside scientists and policymakers.

“You’d be giving a forum to the very nuts you are trying to overcome,” he said.


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