The Economy of Promises

This essay was first published in Nature Nanotechnology 3 p65 (2008), doi:10.1038/nnano.2008.14.

Can nanotechnology cure cancer by 2015? That’s the impression that many people will have taken from the USA’s National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Nanotechnology Plan [1], which begins with the ringing statement “to help meet the Challenge Goal of eliminating suffering and death from cancer by 2015, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is engaged in a concerted effort to harness the power of nanotechnology to radically change the way we diagnose, treat, and prevent cancer.” No-one doubts that nanotechnology potentially has a great deal to contribute to the struggle against cancer; new sensors promise earlier diagnosis, and new drug delivery systems for chemotherapy offer useful increases in survival rates. But this is a long way from eliminating suffering and death within 7 years. Now, a close textual analysis of the NCI’s document shows that actually there’s no explicit claim that nanotechnology will cure cancer by 2015; the talk is of “challenge goals” and “lowering barriers”. But is it wise to make it so easy to draw this conclusion from a careless reading?

It’s hardly a new insight to observe that the development of nanotechnology has been accompanied by exaggeration and oversold promises (there is, indeed, a comprehensive book documenting this aspect of the subject’s history – Nanohype, by David Berube [2]). It’s tempting for scientists to plead their innocence and try to maintain some distance from this. After all, the origin of the science fiction visions of nanobots and universal assemblers is in fringe movements such as the transhumanists and singularitarians, rather than mainstream nanoscience. And the hucksterism that has gone with some aspects of the business of nanotechnology seems to many scientists a long way from academia. But are scientists completely blameless in the development of an “economy of promises” surrounding nanotechnology?

Of course, the way most people hear about new scientific developments is through the mass media rather than through the scientific literature. The process by which a result from an academic nano-laboratory is turned into an item in the mainstream media naturally emphasises dramatic and newsworthy potential impacts of the research; the road from the an academic paper to a press release from a University press office is characterised by a systematic stripping away of the cautious language, and a transformation of vague possible future impacts into near-certain outcomes. The key word here is “could” – how often do we read in the press release accompanying a solid, but not revolutionary, paper in Nature or Physical Review Letters that the research “could” lead to revolutionary and radical developments in technology or medicine?

Practical journalism can’t deal with the constant hedging that comes so naturally to scientists, we’re told, so many scientists acquiesce in this process. The chosen “expert” commentators on these stories are often not those with the deepest technical knowledge of issues, but those who combine communication skills with a willingness to press an agenda of superlative technology outcomes.

An odd and unexpected feature of the way the nanotechnology debate has unfolded is that the concern to anticipate societal impacts and consider ethical dimensions of nanotechnology has itself contributed to the climate of heightened expectations. As the philosopher Alfred Nordmann notes in his paper If and then: a critique of speculative nanoethics (PDF) [3], speculations on the ethical and societal implications of the more extreme extrapolations of nanotechnology serve implicitly to give credibility to such visions. If a particular outcome of technology is conceivable and cannot be demonstrated to be contrary to the laws of nature, then we are told it is irresponsible not to consider its possible impacts on society. In this way questions of plausibility or practicality are put aside. In the case of nanotechnology, we have organisations like the Foresight Nanotech Institute and the Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology, whose ostensible purpose is to consider the societal implications of advanced nanotechnology, but which in reality are advocacy organisations for the particular visions of radical nanotechnology originally associated with Eric Drexler. As the field of “nanoethics” grows, and brings in philosophers and social scientists, it’s inevitable that there will be a tendency to give these views more credibility than academic nanoscientists would like.

Scientists, then, can feel a certain powerlessness about the way the more radical visions of nanotechnology have taken root in the public sphere and retain their vigour. It may seem that there’s not a lot scientists can do about the media treats science stories; certainly no-one made much of a media career by underplaying the potential significance of scientific developments. This isn’t to say that within the constraints of the requirements of the media, scientists shouldn’t exercise responsibility and integrity. But perhaps the “economy of promises” is embedded more deeply in the scientific enterprise than this.

One class of document that is absolutely predicated on promises is the research proposal. As we see more and more pressure from funding agencies to do research with a potential economic impact, it’s inevitable that scientists will get into the habit of making more firmly what might be quite tenuous claims that their research will lead to spectacular outcomes. It’s perhaps also understandable that the conflict between this and more traditional academic values might lead to a certain cynicism; scientists have their own ways of justifying their work to themselves, which might mitigate any guilt they might feel about making inflated or unfeasible claims about the ultimate applications of their work. One way of justifying what might seem somewhat reckless claims about is the observation that science and technology have indeed produced huge impacts on society and the economy, even if these impacts were unforeseen at the time of the original research work. Thus one might argue to oneself that even though the claims made by researchers individually might be implausible, collectively one might have a great deal more confidence that the research enterprise as a whole will deliver important results.

Thus scientists may not be at all confident that their own work will have a big impact, but are confident that science in general will deliver big benefits. On the other hand, the public have long memories for promises that science and technology have made but failed to deliver (the idea that nuclear power would produce electricity “too cheap to meter” being one of the most notorious). This, if nothing else, suggests that the nanoscience community would do well to be responsible in what they promise.

2. Berube, D. Nanohype, (Prometheus Books, Amherst NY, 2006)
3. Nordmann, A. NanoEthics 1, 31-46 (2007).

5 thoughts on “The Economy of Promises”

  1. It sounds like advice the Cancer Crown would give based on the typo statement. I’m optimistic about early cancer diagnosis lab-on-a-chips by 2015, at least for everyone but the poorest 15% Americans.

    “Smoke” is reference to a Family Guy scene where a mobbed up health official is giving children advice in a 1960s public health education film.

    How about this for a USA health plan: make sure hospitals have budgets for soap and make sure biosensor startups have angel funding. A logical cut point to pay for boomer health around Obama II will be defense, so maybe nano advocates could ensure health-related (dual purpose) funding like MIT’s Soldier Lab isn’t axed.
    Antibacterial coatings and fabrics. Better water purifier membranes. Spoiled food sensors. Fake healthy food one day. Gotta be growing these health nanopplications, not cutting budgets here.
    Why doesn’t the USA ensure all its computers are hooked up to cancer-fighting distributed computing applications for starters?

  2. Hi Richard,

    I have notice another trend in NanoHype, this time downhyping!

    There is the famous Space Elevators which was supposed to have been built by 2015! Now it is 2050 (Ref Japan Space Elevator conference 2008).

    Even better yet, it appears that the concept of Space Elevators have been downhyped from 30,000 km cables in geosynchronous orbit, to the Sky Hook concept were Supersonic Jets travelling at Mach 8 will rendevous with near earth objects!

    The moral of the story is that the Nanofan base will adapt Darwinian style to changing circumstances!

    Finally in defense of Nanofans, they did a great job in getting lots of funding for Nanoscience.


  3. Courtesy pointer:

    “… Jones’ overall point seems a good one: nanoscientists shouldn’t over-promise what their research could do to funding agencies and to the public. But in using the word nanotechnology for what they are doing, Jones and the nanoscientists have, it seems to me, put themselves in the same logical position as the apocryphal parricide.

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