Rethinking nanotechnology – responding to a request for Information on the US Nanotechnology Strategic Plan

Back in July, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) posted a Request For Information in the Federal Register for input to the next NNI strategic plan – to be published later this year.  The closing date for comments was a couple of weeks ago now.  I got mine in in the nick of time.  My responses to the seemingly endless questions asked by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy are probably of interest to relatively few people (although if you are suffering from insomnia, you can read them here).  But I thought it might be worth posting my preamble to the specific questions and answers, as it begins to get into some of the more complex social, economic and political issues being faces as the National Nanotechnology Initiative heads for its second decade.

Response to: NNI Strategic Plan 2010; Request for Information (FR Doc. 2010–16273) Submitted August 15 2010:

For nearly ten years, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has set the pace for national and international research and development in nanoscale science and engineering. Without a doubt, increasing our understanding of how matter behaves at the nanometer scale, and using this knowledge to both enhance existing technologies and to create innovative new ones, holds the promise of significant economic and societal benefits. In a world where the needs of a growing population threaten to outstrip increasingly limited resources, and many global challenges – from disease to hunger to renewable energy – remain unresolved, technology innovation is critical to enabling a sustainable future. Yet investing in research and development is just the first step in ensuring responsible, relevant and successful technology solutions. As the NNI enters its second decade, there needs to be an increasing focus on how to translate technology innovations into solutions that work, if the US is to reap the benefits of the considerable investment being made in this area.

The current Request For Information poses twenty-two specific questions regarding the future activities of the NNI in addressing four goals.  In this submission, I will be addressing a number of these questions, based on my experience and knowledge.  However, I would like to preface my comments with some more general observations on nanotechnology, the NNI and the importance of nanoscale science and engineering in underpinning social and economic progress. I add these as, based on many discussions of the importance of emerging technologies and the barriers to their effective development and use, there is a need for an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how nanotechnology fits into a broader innovation, social and economic context.  Looking to the future, I am convinced that we will only fully realize the benefits of nanoscale science and engineering if we learn better how to integrate it with other areas of technology innovation, and with a greater understanding of the evolving social, economic and political dynamics that determine the success or failure of emerging technologies.

The NNI had had a major impact over the past ten years. Beyond facilitating a substantial increase in nanoscale science and engineering R&D funding, the initiative has led to new and innovative collaborative research, has fostered significant technology innovation, and has stimulated interest in science and technology more broadly. It has also provided test case for how an emerging technology might be developed in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

The roots of the NNI were in supporting new research and development, and in this the initiative has been an unqualified success – over the past ten years, peer review papers and patents associated with nanoscale science and engineering have risen dramatically, and there are now a number of academic journals dedicated to the area that did not exist a few years ago. Yet as the fruits of these efforts have moved into the public and commercial domains, the context within which the NNI operates has changed. There has been a clear shift in recent years from nanotechnology being a driver of research, to it being seen as a significant driver of economic growth and social progress. Expectations have been raised as to what investment in nanotech can do for individuals, for local and national economies, and for solving some of the most pressing challenges faced by global society. With this changing context, it is necessary to consider whether the concepts and expectations embedded within the NNI are still valid, or whether they have become an impediment to progress. This is a tough question to ask of such a well-established and influential initiative. But it is one that needs to be addressed if the efforts of the past ten years are to bear fruit.

The indications are that a rethink is needed. As nanotechnology moves from being primarily a research endeavor and into a broader societal, economic and political landscape, the concepts that were so successful at stimulating new research – and new research funding – are now beginning to generate wicked policy problems; where stakeholders are not sure what the problem is, never mind the solutions that are needed to address it. Following debates over the safety of nanotechnology, its regulation, its commercialization and over public understanding, acceptance and engagement, it is increasingly clear that stakeholders are struggling to understand how the concept of “nanotechnology” fits with the issues they are faced with. There is a sense within stakeholder communities that nanotechnology is important and that they should be making decisions about it – in part because of the emphasis placed on it through the NNI. But the concept often fails to translate into something meaningful and tangible within these contexts. The result – communities who feel that they need to do something about nanotechnology, but without a clear sense of what this “something” might be. An example of this is a well-meaning but confused petition recently sent to the Environmental Protection Agency from a group of Non Government Organizations, calling for the agency not to approve an alleged nanotechnology-based dispersant for use in the Gulf of Mexico – simply because of its association with nanotechnology. This petition was as much a product of naïve framing of nanotechnology promulgated in part by the NNI, as it was a result of a disjointed analysis of a possible human health and environmental risk.

This is not to say that nanoscale science, engineering and innovation are not important. On the contrary, I would argue that increasing our understanding and control over matter at the nanoscale is vital. Over the past fifty years, the increasing dexterity with which we can work with matter at the scale of atoms and molecules has enabled tremendous technological advances. And the nanoscale science of today holds the promise of incredible leaps forward in our abilities over future decades. But nanotechnology is just one of a number of technology platforms, and technology innovations that lead to new products and processes typically emerge from the intersections between these platforms. And to place undue emphasis on one platform – and to allow this emphasis to spill over from research and development into social, economic and policy arenas – is to run the risk of impeding the process of transforming technology innovations into viable technology solutions.

Other emerging technology platforms include synthetic biology, cognitive technology, robotics, computational chemistry, information technology, artificial intelligence and biological/data interfaces. Together with established technology platforms, these are supporting new breakthroughs that have the potential to improve existing products and generate innovative new ones. The resulting products and processes are synergistic amalgams of multiple technologies – not just the product of a single technology. High performance batteries, transparent mineral-based sunscreens, targeted drug delivery systems, high-strength materials, increasingly powerful computers – all depend in some way on working with materials at the nanoscale. But they only do what they do because multiple different technologies are used together. And this in turn means that the broader issues of commercialization, safety, environmental impact, benefits and acceptance must be approached from the context of emerging technologies, and not from perspective of one technology alone.

This issue is central to the need to rethink nanotechnology and the role of the NNI within a broader social, economic and political context, as nanoscale science and engineering move out of the laboratory and into the marketplace. Looking to the next ten years, there is a need to consolidate within the NNI an emphasis on nanoscale science and engineering – generating new knowledge and developing new capabilities through synergistic and collaborative research. But there is also a need to rethink how broader questions of technology transfer and commercialization, human health and environmental impacts, societal and economic benefits, education, policy, stakeholder engagement and ethics fit into a broader emerging technologies landscape. Rather than placing nanotechnology in a silo as it moves out of the laboratory, it needs to be integrated with other technology platforms that together will lead to the innovations that will help build a sustainable future.

This is the only way that the growing wicked problems surrounding how nanotechnology is used and the consequences of its implementation will be resolved in the long run.

The full submission in response to this RFI can be read here.

8 thoughts on “Rethinking nanotechnology – responding to a request for Information on the US Nanotechnology Strategic Plan”

  1. Hi Andrew! I’ve taken boo at your submission (twice in fact). Bravo! Plus, a few things popped out at me (1) Your response to the 3rd part of the evaluation question about fundamental and applied research “it can only be approached I suspect by recognizing the reality that the boundaries between fundamental and applied research are extremely blurred, and that often the most innovative research occurs through a synergistic combination of fundamental and applied research.14 In this case, the more appropriate question is perhaps how can a diverse and flexible research portfolio be developed that maximizes the opportunities for innovation?” (p. 14)

    I haven’t seen anyone note the blurred boundary between fundamental and applied research before and use it as a springboard to suggesting a diverse and flexible research portfolio. Certainly, most of the Canadian discussions I’ve seen have tended to pit applied and fundamental research against each other.

    (2) Was there an unconscious assumption that public engagement is going to lead public acceptance?

    (3) I didn’t see any mention of artists, writers, filmmakers, game developers and other ‘creative’ types as stakeholders. Does the NNI include the arts communities as stakeholders? My guess is that they forgot them.

    Thanks for opening up the trenchcoat as it were and making your submission public. I learned a lot from reading it. Cheers, Maryse

    1. Thanks Maryse,

      Quick response: (2) – Oops, if there was any hint that I think public engagement will lead to public acceptance, I should be severely reprimanded! If this came through, it was an error on my part for not checking my response thoroughly enough. Certainly, my perspective is that technology innovation is important, and that it should be possible to do this more safely/responsibly than we currently manage to. But at the same time, I believe it’s critical that the wishes, hopes and aspirations of the people that stand to gain or loose by the development of new technologies are accounted for – which means giving all stakeholders a meaningful seat at the table (as well as providing them with the best possible tools to play an active role in affairs).

      (3) – Brilliant point, and one that I feel a fool for not picking up on, now you mention it. I’ve long been interested in the arts as a vehicle for communication and engagement, but hadn’t quite made the mental leap to seeing “creative types” as stakeholders – until now. I have never seen/heard the NNI consider the arts community as stakeholders – but without a doubt they should!

  2. Very useful post and comments.

    Fundamentally agree with your premise that the downstream applications of new technologies integrate a variety of technologies and we should stop just looking at the single tech – hence our move from Responsible Nano Forum to MATTER. We have concluded that it’s not all about the ‘ology’, but fundamentally about how it is used. We are exploring how to best engage stakeholders on that broader front, which is much harder.

    However, I think it is only the research community which thinks in this ‘ology’ specific way. I suspect that most of those involved in commercial application development smile at this narrow and rather divisive mode of thinking. In fact they may actually be very frustrated by it as some of the research being done may not serve them as well as it might as you and Maryse have identified.

    I hear this frustration from some companies, particularly the smaller ones, who ask an interesting question ‘if the name nano had not been invented to get cash for the research community, what would we be spending the money on now and would it be more useful to business and to society?’

    But this all then brings us back to the whole Research Impact Debate which is happening a lot in the UK at the moment and is causing much tearing out of hair. But then none of this is easy!

  3. Dr. Maynard,
    I comment here on your cool roof, not knowing how recently you checked comments there.

    How did you decide what roof coating to use ?

    Can you share your research into that choice ?

    We want to paint our roof, too.

    1. Hi Judith,

      I looked for a product that seemed to have credible science behind it. The information that was available on the HyTech paint seemed to make sense (microspheres for insulation, good whiteness to reflect the light, developed for use on roofs…) – but it’s not the only paint out there. I was very pleased with the results, but I think the plan only succeeded because the roof was reasonably flat (I could do it myself without endangering my life!) and it wasn’t easily visible from the road (not sure how the neighbors would have reacted to an on-your-face white roof).

  4. Dr. Maynard, thank you for continuing to share your sage insight. I wholeheartedly endorse your call for the NNI to shift into NNI 2.0 mode. As a member of the nano-literate non-credentialed public, my opinion is that the NNI has fallen short in focusing the potency of its economic benefit.

    You were right to address issues in patent IP and technology transfer. My concern is that patents and published papers are often treated as an endpoint in research, and do little towards increasing researcher influence in the public domain or in establishing a successful business model. Many researchers aren’t cross trained or encouraged to pursue entrepreneurship. Patent litigation alone is a poor business model. If researchers only focus on getting published (which is ultimately the end goal for many in academia) thoughts often stagnate in a very insulated meme pool. Vast segments of the population have no idea who Richard Feynman is, nor do they subscribe to Nature Nanotechnology. It’s sad, but true.

    Unfortunately, only in rare cases do you find people gifted enough to possess that rare mix of technical aptitude, boundless creativity, and business acumen. Silicon Valley is an enigma, not the norm. Yet we desperately need to figure out how to scale its culture elsewhere.

    To that end, we’re still looking at forecasts from Harris and Harris as well as Lux Research that validate a 15 year capital intensive R&D process before getting a product to market. History shows us that there is an entire graveyard of well researched patents that are significant in scientific insight, but yield little economic value, and many of these didn’t even need FDA clearance.

    Regardless of industry or field, will nanotech research take the path of contemporary drug development where innovation costs upwards of $1B USD in bringing a new pharmaceutical to market? Especially given the unknown unknowns of EHS ramifications? In terms of entrepreneurial technology transfer, this is a monumental barrier to entry. To all but .1% of potential investors (how many entities have a net worth of over $1 Billion?), its enough risk to induce a heart attack.

    Why no discussion of open source? With the triumphant success of OpenWetWare, OpenCog, Open Course Ware and DIYBio, I would think that other ‘sister’ fields of nanoscience research would be trying to emulate the successes of the open source model. Pair this with the emerging trend of ‘hackerspaces’ ( and you have an exciting opportunity to engage and influence public education. We need more SEM, wet lab, and lithography equipped hackerspaces!

    To be fair I think the NNI tried to structure the Research Centers to fill this role, but the problem with the Research Centers is that they often have Olympian resources and an equally bureaucratic barrier for use. There are elaborate proposals required for lab time, resume requirements, a vetting process, etc. I agree that they are often necessary, but if you want to intimidate a lay citizen to abandon their curiosity or self directed study it’s been a sure fire recipe for success.

    I wholeheartedly endorse allocating tax dollars to jump-start matter based innovation revolutions – especially when the alternative is subsidizing multibillion dollar losses to Bankster borne risk derivatives based on elaborate floating point equations. I also acknowledge that my opinion may be somewhat irrelevant given that a decade is hardly enough time to yield fruit in this fundamental research intensive field. As such, your call to engage the NNI to evolve beyond the coal face of R&D is most welcome. Hopefully it can help us get closer to solving systemic problems inherent with outdated 20th century models of education, business and government.

    1. Thanks for this Jason. Open source nanotech is an interesting idea, and deserves a lot more attention (from me as well). One of the reasons you don’t see it being discussed more is the feeling amongst “pros” that nanotech is much to complex and costly for “amateurs” to play around with – but that’s vener seemed to stop people in the past!

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