George W. Bush approved the S189 bill, also known as the 21st
Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act on December
3, 2003. Starting in 2005, this Act will provide $3.7 billion
over the next four years for federal nanotechnology programs,
and reorganizes government and research communities under
a National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO). Bush
also has requested $849 million in funding for nanotechnology
projects for fiscal year 2004.
The bill calls for the president to establish a national program
to undertake long-term basic nanoscience and engineering research.
Emphasis will be on potential breakthroughs in materials and
manufacturing, nanoelectronics, medicine and health care,
computation and IT and national security. It also creates
the National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel (NNAP) from industry
and academia to help articulate short-term (1-5 years), medium-range
(6-10 years), and long-range (10+ years) goals and objectives
and to establish performance metrics for the already established
National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) under the National
Science and Technology Council (NSTC), which is a collaborative
initiative of 13 federal agencies. The bill provides a structure
for coordination of research across agencies. Under the legislation,
the advisory board will submit an annual report to the president
and Congress regarding nanotechnology progress, and a review
on funding levels for nanotechnology activities for each federal
Funding from the S189 bill starts October 2005, the beginning
of the government's next fiscal year. Nanotech funding has
increased 83 percent since 2001, according to the White House.
It is estimated that a whopping 95 percent of the $3.7 Billion
authorized will go to scientific research and development
-- roughly 60 percent for academia and 35 percent for government
labs. It also emphasizes interdisciplinary research, seeks
to address concerns raised by nanotechnology, and requires
outside reviews of the programs. After stating some of the
bill’s major details, this article will discuss the politics
of the nanotech bill.
This 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development
Act started in the office of Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2001, until
it was derailed by the events of Sept. 11 and was shelved.
In 2002, Sen. George Allen, Sen. Ron Wyden and House Science
Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert picked up the mantle.
The signing of the bill by President Bush makes nanotechnology
the highest federally funded basic science and technology
effort since the space race. Funding that in the past was
at the discretion of the president is now mandated. The bill
ultimately promised jobs and economic development, and in
the short term deliver research projects to government labs
and universities in potentially every Congressional district.
That’s a powerful combination to an elected official.
The reasoning behind that last statement is because of the
role of the new National Nanotechnology Coordination Office
(NNCO) and National Nanotech Advisory Panel (NNAP) (an appointed
group of academics and industrial leaders) who will together
assess, guide, and allocate nanotechnology research spending
and reports directly to the President and Congress. This advisory
board potentially could have much influence over government
spending policy and thus have the potential of becoming a
very powerful and influential entity.
NNAP will replace the current Nanotechnology Technical Advisory
Group (NTAG) charged with providing technical information
on nanotechnology to the President's Council of Advisors on
Science and Technology (PCAST). As part of NTAG, PCAST has
formed three Task Forces in the following areas: Materials/Electronics/Photonics;
Energy/Environment; and Biology/Medicine/Societal Issues.
NTAG consists of experts representing a range of disciplines,
such as bionanotechnology, drug delivery, biosensers, MEMS,
sensing, chemistry, physics, business, commercial and government.
NTAG is made up of academics and industrial players. The TAG
shall expire September 30, 2005 when NNAP will takes over
in October 2005. How
will the members of the newly created and politically influential
NNAP be best chosen? The question is important because of
the existence of factions in nanotechnology, in particular,
between the non-profit nanotechnology organizations themselves.
The problem is that it is from these competing non-profit
organizations that members of these advisory panels and offices
may often be drawn from. There is a lot of money at stake
here so it is no surprise that people are fighting for a piece
of the pie.
More interesting is if you examine the current NTAG group
closely, the 40+ members invited and included are also heavily
supported by one of the non-profit organizations. Where are
the members supported by the other groups? In order for NTAG
and NNAP to be objective and fulfill their responsibility
to the American public, NNAP needs to include other notable
nanotechnology experts that aren’t favored by any one particular
non-profit organization that may happen to have more political
The formation of the NNAP should offer the opportunity to
bring in new members that have been in or just entered into
the nanotechnology community, and who can provide additional
and fresher perspectives. It would be prudent to include members
capable of discussing the sociological impact of nanotechnology
and technology trends in general. If the members of the NNAP
group are not diverse enough in support and opinion, then
the purpose for their creation and existence becomes moot.
Otherwise, they become a political tool and our tax dollars
payer money does not aren’t get allocated appropriately, nor
to the right areas which would benefit citizens the most.
Most people have no idea the degree of politics, egos and
power plays within the nanotechnology community, and shenanigans
are not confined to the U.S. players, which makes sense because
nanotechnology – like all advanced technology - is global.
Some of you are familiar with the Drexler-Smalley debate surrounding
the potential of Molecular Nanotechnology (MNT). MNT got its
one-time feasibility study deleted from the bill in the final
stretch. I will not go into specific details into surrounding
what MNT is, or that debate since many other articles cover
the details of that debate, and that information is easily
accessible on the Internet. Unfortunately, similar to stem
cell research and cloning, MNT will likely become more advanced
in other countries that will support and fund it. MNT advances
will eventually come out of some place like China when it
is found to be truly feasible. It just takes time. Since MNT
lost out in the nanotech bill, members of the opposing camp
may see it as a “win” for them in the short term. However,
it is a “loss” for everyone else in the long term when potential
is stifled early on and not given a chance to prove itself
one way or another. (link to our omission article here)
The idea that two notable scientists are battling it out publicly
while the debate degenerates to name calling and emotional
arguments is unfortunate and typical of the Reality TV culture
we’ve become. If this debate was to stimulate thought and
brainstorm, then the value of a public debate is a good thing.
However it becomes clear that there are motivations other
than this for this public display, which is indicative of
the loss of scientific objectivity. This behavior among the
scientific community is particularly distressing because it
diminishes credibility of both sides to the in the eyes of
the general public.
Both Drexler and Smalley camps have good points from a scientific
perspective, but there is no definitive proof yet that one
is more right. Which scientist can honestly say they know
better than the other? Can they both be right? Of course.
Can they both be wrong? Of course. Science, and in this case,
Nanotechnology, is not one of those areas where who is right
is determined by the majority of supporters. It will be via
research and discovery of the facts to answer the basic questions
that will determine who is more right.
Even the scientific community, which includes the nanotech
community, needs to remember that before theory, comes hypothesis.
A hypothesis is not yet proven to be a theory. So is there
potential for MNT? There is no answer unless we fund the feasibility
study. It’s a circular argument. Neither Drexler and Smalley
nor others are equipped to really know the answer to this
right now, before it is studied. However, looking more closely,
certain non-profit organizations have thrown their support
behind one figure or another in this debate.
The best of us fall victim to the lure of power, influence,
money and ego. Although Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley have
achieved a pinnacle in their careers, the founders of these
organizations probably have not. Unless this debate is for
more constructive purposes, it is beginning to look more like
a battle of egos. Of course, one can always argue how much
more could a Nobel Prize physicist and famous published nanotechnology
visionary want after achieving so much already. My experience
is that sometimes, unfortunately, there is always more to
want. The motivations of such non-profits and their organizers
behind the debaters need to be examined if you want a clearer
picture of why some people’s profiles are promoted and why
Let us look more closely at the non-profit organizations.
Non-profits by definition imply an altruistic bent to their
existence which also sometimes allows the non-profit status
to qualify for a favorable tax status. As we are all allowed
to speak our minds under the First Amendment, creating such
an organization behind these ideas lends weight to those ideas
them because it collects supporters as members and lends credibility
to the ideas. These members may or may not pump money into
the organization to support itself. However, in some cases,
the non-profit classification aids in the raising of funds
from outside sources for its collective altruistic cause.
From a marketing perspective, this is a great fund-raising
strategy. More interestingly, the non-profit status provides
a platform for ideas to be presented as altruistic, where
motivations can be judged under less scrutiny. For instance,
unless there is a real problem, most do not scrutinize charities
even though they may have questionable practices because the
thinking is that the charity organization, a non-profit, is
providing a community or social service of some sort that
no one else can or wants to. There is an aversion to checking
up on those who seem to be helping you. The reason this is
important is because there are non-profit organizations whose
activities and motivations deserve more scrutiny.
If this is the case, how do you confirm it? That is the tricky
part and the only answer here is research, by asking the right
questions. Some basic questions could be “Who are the members
or founders of such non-profit organizations and what are
their backgrounds? Are they qualified to be objective advocates
of nanotechnology and its impact on society? Where do they
get their money? Where do they want to get their money? What
are their alliances and what is their purpose? What are the
purpose and motivations for their existence…money, power,
politics, ego, etc.?” These are similar questions used when
assessing management of organizations in general. Look for
the conflicts and overlaps of interest and ulterior motives.
There is also money to be made further down this value chain.
Large corporations and investment firms will be heartened
by this government policy putting their money where their
mouth is. These policies are to spur economic growth by helping
encourage just those industries to invest their own capital,
to help themselves and the economy, by creating jobs and encouraging
economic growth. In the end, the government and its citizens
becomes a customer for those products created by taxpayer
investment. It is a closed loop. Many of the non-profit nanotechnology
organizations are positioning themselves in for-profit entities
to handle those needs.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to make money, as we live
in a capitalistic society that wholeheartedly supports this.
We all have to make money to survive. However, how we make
the money is an issue. Even non-profits are bound by ethical
standards of doing their non-profit business. Conflicts of
interest here run rampant where the lines between non-profit
and for-profit become vague and laden with ulterior motives.
The motivations of all such organizations should be examined
before deciding behind whom to throw their support and who
will be appointed as members of the NNAP and NNCO.
When science does fall victim to politics and egos, even unknowingly,
we invariably get an inaccurate assessment of the facts because
opinions become presented as facts. The egos involved are
not just the ‘scientists’. Noted scientists must become wary
of when they and their status are being used as pawns for
someone else’s political and financial ambitions. This scenario
is by no means confined to just the U.S. as there are cross-country
issues between non-profit nanotechnology organizations too…as
you would expect.
The other reason for the existence of the non-profit nanotechnology
factions is power…in particular political influence. This
is a whole different can of worms, which I will not go into
here, but needs to be at least mentioned.
You would be surprised as to who is really qualified to speak
on nanotechnology and investing in nanotechnology, and who
is actually only speaking about it. Being supported by influential
people does not necessarily mean the substance is there, nor
does it mean they are validated by that support.
Those who are funding nanotechnology, which in some sense
is everyone including the taxpayer, needs to be aware of the
politics of who is deciding what, how, where, when and to
who the $3.7 Billion + $849 Million funding goes. We need
to ensure that members of these influential panels and offices
are chosen carefully, and in our own best interests. Those
are That money is our taxpayer dollarsmoney. If this issue
is important to you, I urge you to contact your Congressman
to make sure he or she is not getting only one side of the
big picture by design. There is money, political power and
influence involved, and egos are very much a problem here.
In this case, you don’t need to watch soap operas because
real life is more interesting.