Tough love for science and technology innovation

by Andrew Maynard on December 10, 2008

The National Research Council of the National Academies releases its review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health, and Safety Research.  And it’s not pretty.

Most people acknowledge that innovation is vital to economic and social prosperity.  But what do you do when science and technology innovation are in danger of being stymied by bad habits and misguided thinking?  One solution: apply a little tough love.  Something a new report from the US National Academies does in spades.

By the end of the next US administration, there will be an estimated seven billion people on the planet, all wanting food, shelter, and water, and most of them striving for a first-world quality of life.  With dwindling natural resources and an environment struggling to absorb humanity’s assaults, old technologies are coming to the end of their shelf life.   Energy security, curing cancer, quality of life in old age, plentiful clean water, climate change—none of these challenges will be met without science and technology innovation.

More to the point, without a constant stream of science and technology innovation, the economy will be starved of the knowledge-capital so desperately needed for stability and growth.

Given this backdrop, you would think that the US federal government would be on top of spotting and navigating around potential barriers to innovation.  Yet according to a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academies, the feds seem to have their collective heads in the sand when it comes to ensuring investment in science and technology research delivers sustainable results…

The new report specifically addresses nanotechnology.  And it focuses on federal government plans to address potential risks associated with this emerging technology.  But the cracks in the system it reveals are most likely endemic across all areas of science and technology innovation.

Nanotechnology is at the forefront of a handful of emerging technologies that are poised to underpin science and technology innovation over the coming decade.  By gaining increasing control over matter at the scale of atoms and molecules, scientists are opening the doors to technology innovations undreamed of a few years back—computers that run on light; drugs that seek out and destroy cancer cells; batteries that out-perform fossil-fuel alternatives; intelligent packaging that lets you know when food is contaminated.  And these are just the tip of the iceberg.  Lux Research estimates that within five years, over $3 trillion worth of goods sold globally will owe part of their value to nanotechnology.  And while different analysts come up with different projections, it’s hard to escape the potential of nanotechnology to make a significant difference on the world stage.

Yet if this potential is to be realized, innovative science will need to be transformed into innovative technology.  And here’s the rub: if the new technology isn’t safe, isn’t perceived to be safe, or is plagued by uncertainty over how to use it safely, it will be stymied.  And the economic and societal benefits will dwindle from a flood to a trickle.

Already some early nanotechnology-based developments are plagued by uncertainty over potential risks.  Carbon nanotubes for instance—a tremendously exciting new material with applications from super-strong materials to next-generation electronics—have a passing resemblance to asbestos fibers in some configurations.  And a lack of clear information on how to use them safely is dogging a nascent nanotube industry.

Unfortunately the federal government is still struggling to provide the necessary health and safety research and oversight to underpin effective nanotechnology innovation.  The just-released National Academies report reviews the federal strategy for nanotechnology-related environmental, health and safety research. And the conclusion:  There is no strategy!

This is bad news for science and technology innovation, bad news for the economy, and bad news for anyone concerned with climate change, disease treatment, and a whole host of other issues.  Because if we cannot work out the rules of safe use for this new technology, what hope have we of using it to our advantage?

The fifteen person-strong National Academies panel, of which I was a member, unanimously recommended a National Strategy be developed for nanotechnology risk research, that will allow stakeholders to pool their collective wisdom in coming up with a plan for ensuring the long-term success of nanotechnology-based innovation.

But this is only part of the solution to making sure nanotechnology and other emerging technologies succeed.  To turn things around and get science and technology innovation back on track, some tough love is needed.  And that means facing some home truths, and getting rid of some bad habits.

Top of the list of bad habits is a tendency to treat risk-focused studies as economy-class research.  Research into understanding and mitigating potential risks arising from emerging technologies is key to success in innovation. And the more innovative the technologies being developed, the more innovative the risk-research needed to use them wisely.

Then there is a fear of commitment (aka accountability and responsibility).  Even though nanotechnology risk-research dollars are pitifully small compared to overall investment in nanotech R&D, there is a reticence to ensure even these meager dollars are used wisely and responsibly.

Of course, getting federal agencies to work together is tougher than herding cats.  But by developing effective collaborations and partnerships between agencies and with non-government stakeholders, institutional barriers that inhibit effective science and technology innovation can be overcome.

However, such partnerships will depend on a master-plan—which is where a national research strategy is needed.

Third in the catalogue of bad habits is fiscal tight-fistedness.  In the US, the federal government will be stretched to underpin successful nanotechnology innovation without investing between $50 million – $100 million more per year in nanotechnology risk research.  This needs to be targeted toward agencies that can use it to generate useful information.

Some ideas on how this might be done in the short term have just been posted on the web by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.  But in the long term, a National Research Strategy is needed to guide future R&D investment and direction.

I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that nanotechnology and other emerging technologies are vital to the future economic and social well-being of the United States and other countries.  Yet without an ability to spot potential barriers to their development and find innovative solutions to overcome them, we’re never going to get there.

And, quite frankly, the previous US administration blew it—the National Academies report reveals a naïve and blinkered perspective on establishing a research agenda that supports science and technology innovation.

However, it’s time to draw a line under the past mis-steps, and make a fresh start. With President-Elect Obama’s emphasis in science and technology in the US, there is a chance to move on from the muddle of the past and take clear steps towards enabling emerging technologies that that do more good than harm, and that stimulate the economy while helping to address national and global challenges.

Tough love is never comfortable.  But it usually leads to change for the better.  And in the case of nanotechnology, getting health and safety research right will mean that everyone benefits in the end.

1 nanotürkiye December 12, 2008 at 2:40 pm

I hope that new administration will give importance to this issue. Or we would stop nanotechnology research because of people’s fear. That will prevent us from finding solutions to many problems.

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