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.