Politics and the National Nanotechnology Initiative

The view that the nanobusiness and nanoscience establishment has subverted the originally intended purpose of the USA’s National Nanotechnology Initiative has become received wisdom amongst supporters of the Drexlerian vision of MNT. According to this reading of nanotechnology politics,
any element of support for Drexler’s vision for radical nanotechnology has been stripped out of the NNI to make it safe for mundane near-term applications of incremental nanotechnology like stain resistant fabric. This position is succintly expressed in this Editorial in the New Atlantis, which makes the claim that the legislators who supported the NNI did so in the belief that it was the Drexlerian vision that they were endorsing.

A couple of points about this position worry me. Firstly, we should be very clear that there is a very important dividing line in the relationship between science and politics that any country should be very wary of crossing. In a democratic country, it’s absolutely right that the people’s elected representatives should have the final say about what areas of science and technology are prioritised for public spending, and indeed what areas of science are left unpursued. But we need to be very careful to make sure that this political oversight of science doesn’t spill over into ideological statements about the validity of particular scientific positions. If supporters of MNT were to argue that the government should overrule the judgement of the scientific community about what approach to radical nanotechnology is most likely to work on what are essentially ideological grounds, then I’d suggest they recall the tragic and unedifying history of similar interventions in the past. Biology in the Soviet Union was set back for a generation by Lysenko, who, unable to persuade his colleagues of the validity of his theory of genetics, appealed directly to Stalin. Such perversions aren’t restricted to totalitarian states; Edward Teller used his high level political connections to impose his vision of the x-ray laser on the USA’s defense research establishment, in the face of almost universal scepticism from other physicists. The physicists were right, and the program was abandoned, but not before the waste of many billions of dollars.

But there’s a more immediate criticism of the theory that the NNI has been highjacked by nanopants. This is that it’s not right, even from the point of view of supporters of Drexler. The muddle and inconsistency comes across most clearly on the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology’s
blog. While this entry strongly endorses the New Atlantis line, this entry only a few weeks earlier expresses the opinion that the most likely route to radical nanotechnology will come through wet, soft and biomimetic approaches. Of course, I agree with this (though my vision of what radical nanotechnology will look like is very different from that of supporters of MNT); it is the position I take in my book Soft Machines; it is also, of course, an approach recommended by Drexler himself. Looking across at the USA, I see some great and innovative science being done along these lines. Just look at the work of Ned Seeman, Chad Mirkin, Angela Belcher or Carlo Montemagno, to take four examples that come immediately to mind. Who is funding this kind of work? It certainly isn’t the Foresight Institute – no, it’s all those government agencies that make up the much castigated National Nanotechnology Initiative.

Of course, supporters of MNT will say that, although this work may be moving in the direction that they think will lead to MNT, it isn’t been done with that goal explicitly stated. To this, I would simply ask whether it isn’t a tiny bit arrogant of the MNT visionaries to think that they are in a better position to predict the outcome of these lines of inquiry than the people who are actually doing the research.

Whenever science funding is allocated, there is a real tension between the short-term and the long-term, and this is a legitimate bone of contention between politicians and legislators, who want to see immediate results in terms of money and jobs for the people they represent, and scientists and technologists with longer term goals. If MNT supporters were simply to argue that the emphasis of the NNI should be moved away from incremental applications towards longer term, more speculative research, then they’d find a lot of common cause with many nanoscientists. But it doesn’t do anyone any good to confuse these truly difficult issues with elaborate conspiracy theories.

4 thoughts on “Politics and the National Nanotechnology Initiative”

  1. You write: “…it doesnt do anyone any good to confuse these
    truly difficult issues with elaborate conspiracy theories.”

    I didn’t think our conspiracy theories were all that elaborate.

  2. I think Foresight has a bigger tent than you’re giving it credit for, Richard. Remember, they were the only nanogame in town for more than a decade, and everybody from cryonicists to chemists were happy to associate with them. And so are some of the names you mention above. I met Carlo Montemagno at a Foresight conference two years ago, when he won the 2003 Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology. He did not seem at all uncomfortable with associated with Drexler “radicals.”

  3. Howard, my point remains. It’s great that Foresight would want to honour the achievements of people like Montemagno. But since quite a lot of his (undoubtedly considerable) funding comes from the NNI, you can’t then turn around and say that the NNI isn’t funding anything in line with Foresight’s objectives.

  4. Well, despite the perception in some quarters, I’m not a spokesperson for Foresight, so I cannot even tell you what their objectives are these days. However, I agree with you that the group is at its best when they are not an advocate for any one particular vision of nanotechnology, but instead make themselves available as a resource for all points of view. If they do that, make the nanobots lie down with the nanopants, they’d be back along the right road.

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