The National Nanotechnology Initiative 10 Years on

English: Mihail C. Roco, the Senior Advisor fo...

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Tomorrow’s technology, today’s process: The National Nanotechnology Initiative 10 years on

Stardate 2010. Early 21st century America. Washington, DC, that handful of 202 phone numbers and zipcodes in the 20000s where responsibility for the human future most tangibly intersects with planet earth – and its lead policy community. Or where it should. Where the fierce urgency (sorry) is not of now, but of then, whether leaders and bureaucrats realize it or not. Where some of the smartest and most humane of women and men are tasked with shaping strategy for a generation – in a slice of space where time is marked off in votes and hearings and FY11 and the electoral cycle. (Did I hear someone whisper “cognitive dissonance”?)

There’s no doubt that developments on the nanoscale will transform, power, and shape, the 21st century. We can trace a clear line from Richard Feynman’s storied prophecy from the mid-20th that “there’s plenty of room at the bottom” to Bill Clinton’s 2000 Caltech speech that launched the National Nanotechnology Initiative – to the current effort to work up the next round of the NNI strategic plan, the occasion for our C-PET Roundtable last Friday. That line runs through Eric Drexler’s brilliant and controversial speculation on “molecular” nano, his famous exchange with Nobelist Richard Smalley (coincidentally memorialized by Rice University at an elegant Capitol Hill reception earlier in the week), and a host of sci-fi scenarios – most notably, Neal Stephenson’s astonishing Diamond Age. (Wondering, here, how many members of Congress have read it?)

But to business. As the NNI gears up for its next 3-year plan, we invited round C-PET’s table a range of voices, in discipline and perspective. One participant commented (complimented, even) that she had never taken part in such a diverse panel. Diversity is so vital to achieving a positive sum outcome, so we try and bring to bear all articulate perspectives. It’s not just about fairness; it’s about being smart. What passes for dialogue too easily tends toward sophisticated groupthink.

Discussion was lively. John Veysey, representing Congressman Lipinski who chairs the research subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology, rooted our discussion in his boss’s blue-collar district, the need for jobs, and the cost of the “disruption” that is tied to hopes for nano. Clayton Teague, who directs the office that co-ordinates the NNI (the NNCO), outlined its complex character as a partnership of more than two dozen federal agencies which relinquish a slice of their autonomy to co-operate. The agencies’ distinctive agendas themselves reflect patterns of Congressional oversight and appropriations. Developing alignment and exploiting the creativity that these differential approaches release lie at the heart of the federal project. Nora Savage, nano lead at EPA and co-chair of the group tasked with writing the new strategic plan, admitted that the very small slice of funding going to her agency had just got smaller. Erin Ross of NANRES, which follows security and energy applications, called for balance in our approach to the several contested issues. Dan Sarewitz ofArizonaState, who has written on technology governance, noted that perhaps 1% of the budget had gone to ethical, legal and social issues, and warned against the idea that technology’s disruptive impacts are always beneficial. For the NanoBusiness Alliance, Philip Lippel called for more focus on commercialization. David Forrest of the Foresight Institute asked why the holy grail of “molecular manufacturing” was not being pursued, since it would solve almost every problem. Jennifer Sass (NRDC) discussed the current effort to reform TOSCA. Shaun Clancy of Evonik Degussa told how the NNI helps a company like his, and not that industry had been poor at communication with the public. Margaret Glass, NISEnet, addressed that question, noted the high level of confidence people have in museums, and outlined the “nano days” initiative that was set to help improve understanding of EHS and ELSI issues. Since public understanding of nano has pretty much flatlined, this could hardly be more important.

So what’s my take, 10 years into the NNI? Clayton Teague’s engagement throughout the roundtable was a model of listening and being prepared to answer. It became clear, to those who did not already know, that the NNI is a complex collaboration of agencies and budgets quite unlike the nano thrust of any other nation, and uniquely suited (in ways good and also bad) to the way Washington does things when more than one agency is involved. In this case, there are more than two dozen. It is at least in the hands of a consummate as well as highly expert diplomat.

Here’s what was on my mind as I listened.

For one thing, I’m puzzled by the planning process. It has too much of a pro-forma feel to it. 3-year plans, end-to-end? With the compounding speed of change, that is too stately a pace. Why not a rolling process, annually updated, looking 1, 3 and 5 years out, continually scanning the horizon? Why not a more self-critical focus on lessons learned, and openness to ongoing change in the process as they are? More “outsiders” involved to review and push? I’m aware of good answers to these questions. But good answers may not be solutions, and the questions won’t go away.

For another, while a single, unified project may be unattainable, can we not move to a half-way house? Turf is indeed turf. But there are fundamental, national, common interests at stake. It’s a nettle that needs to be grasped sooner or later. I wonder how the NNI would look if, say, 30% of relevant appropriations were at the strategic disposal of the NNCO.

For another, the impression is out there that on the thorny issues (environment, toxicity, social issues) the NNI has been slow, unwilling, foot-dragging. An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal several years ago famously brought together a corporate leader with an environmentalist pleading for a 20-fold increase in spending on toxicology. Around the same time, the appropriations committee that funds the NSF pressed (in conference language) for a 3-5% setaside for ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI) research along the lines of the human genome project. These EHS and ELSI interventions were ignored. Irrespective of the merits of the initiatives, the push-back they got from those then in charge did not make brand nano look good.

But there’s a broader issue, a much bigger issue, of which these wrinkles are components and examples. The way of the future, its tech, its process, will be a lot less like classical music and a lot more like jazz. Let me illustrate. I was tweeting during our roundtable (@nigelcameron for those who want to check them out, #c-petnano). Not sure if anyone else was. At a tech conference over on the west coast, dozens, scores of people tweet. It’s become the norm. Twitter may not be the future, but it’s a quick, nimble, lateral way to think out loud.

While the NNI was pushing back the EHS and ELSI overtures in the early and mid-2000s, the National Science Foundation did something far-sighted. With the Department of Commerce, it initiated a series of conference and volumes of papers focused on the convergence of emerging technologies at the nanoscale – grouping together nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science (NBIC). This was a far-sighted discussion co-hosted by Mihail Roco, the lead NSF expert and driving force on nano, and polymath William Sims Bainbridge, a director in its division of behavioral sciences. They were edgy, future-oriented events, yet so far as one can tell zero impact on policy development or anything else in federal science and technology (a shame). But they brought together smart people across disciplines and perspectives, and let their thinking flow.

We shall build the bridge to the future inWashingtonin part by cultivating parallel conversations that are not limited by the bureaucracy and the politics of the way-things-have-always-been-done. The creativity that gave birth to the NNI needs to power it and ultimately (re)shape it. Emerging technologies need matching governance that is as nimble, responsive, and transformational as they are. How else to engage the pressures of global competitiveness and the demands of security, risk, and ethics?

Stardate 2020 The NNI after another decade? I wonder how things will look by then. I doubt it will be focused on 3-year plans.

Do read the quintessential product of the NSF Converging Technologies process:

And there is some handy material, including my comments on the CTs process, in NANOSCALE: ISSUES AND PERSPECTIVES FOR THE NANO CENTURY, ed. Nigel M. de S. Cameron and M. Ellen Mitchell (John Wiley, 2007)

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