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U.S. Nanotechnology Policy — Missing the Point


U.S. government policy regarding nanotechnology is a tragicomedy of errors, but the audience—which, in this case, is the public and taxpayers—shouldn't be laughing. We present here an overview on the unfortunate state of affairs, including views from a selection of commentators.


bulletA Brief History of Nanotechnology
bulletThe Tangled Web of Policy Weaving
bulletMissing the Point on Policy


A Brief History of Nanotechnology 

The foundations of nanotechnology have emerged over many decades of research in many different fields. Computer circuits have been getting smaller. Chemicals have been getting more complex. Biochemists have learned more about how to study and control the molecular basis of organisms. Mechanical engineering has been getting more precise.

In 1959, the great physicist Richard Feynman suggested that it should be possible to build machines small enough to manufacture objects with atomic precision. His talk, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom", is widely considered to be the foreshadowing of nanotechnology. Among other things, he predicted that information could be stored with amazing density.

The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom... I want to build a billion tiny factories, models of each other, which are manufacturing simultaneously.
— Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner in physics



In the late 1970's, Eric Drexler began to invent what would become molecular manufacturing. He quickly realized that molecular machines could control the chemical manufacture of complex products, including additional manufacturing systems—which would be a very powerful technology. Drexler published scientific papers beginning in 1981. In 1986, he introduced the term "nanotechnology" in his book Engines of Creation to describe this approach to manufacturing and some of its consequences. (Subsequent search showed that Taniguchi had previously used the word in Japan to describe precision micromachining.) In 1992, Drexler published Nanosystems, a technical work outlining a way to manufacture extremely high-performance machines out of molecular carbon lattice ("diamondoid"). Meanwhile, he was also engaging in policy activism to raise awareness of the implications of the technology; he founded the Foresight Institute in 1986.

Engines of Creation created much excitement. The term "nanotechnology" rapidly became popular, and almost immediately its meaning began to shift. By 1992, Drexler was using "molecular nanotechnology" or "molecular manufacturing" to distinguish his manufacturing ideas from the simpler product-focused research that was borrowing the word. This research, producing shorter-term results, came to define the field for many observers, and has continued to claim the term "nanotechnology". To avoid confusion, CRN refers to such research as "nanoscale technology".

Federal funding for nanotechnology began under President Clinton with the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Instead of funding molecular manufacturing, the NNI chose to focus on nanoscale technology, which it defined as anything with a size between 1 and 100 nanometers with novel properties. This broad definition encompassed cutting-edge semiconductor research, several developing families of chemistry, and advances in materials.

Meanwhile, a brief mention in Engines of Creation of the dangers of self-replicating systems was proving increasingly troublesome to the field of molecular manufacturing. The idea arose that any molecular manufacturing system would be only one "oops" away from eating the biosphere. The Wired article "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" by noted computer scientist Bill Joy publicized this concern. Nanoscale technology researchers, fearing—perhaps with justification—that "grey goo" would threaten their funding, increased their efforts to distance their work from molecular manufacturing. One of the easiest ways to do this was to claim that molecular manufacturing was impossible and unscientific. These claims gained force since molecular manufacturing research was (and remains) highly technical, interdisciplinary, and largely theoretical.

The controversy continues. Some scientists continue to assert that molecular manufacturing is impossible. Others note that opposition is based on the widespread misrepresentation and misrepresentation of Drexler's work, and that there is no research demonstrating the supposed unfeasibility of molecular manufacturing theory. A published debate between Drexler and chemist Richard Smalley in December 2003 illustrated the tone of the controversy, with Smalley accusing Drexler of "hav[ing] scared our children" with "such monster[s] as the self-replicating mechanical nanobot" and Drexler accusing Smalley of having "attempted to dismiss my work in this field by misrepresenting it." The two did not communicate effectively. On the technical side, Drexler mostly restated what he had been saying for years, but Smalley made some interesting scientific errors. A recent paper by Chris Phoenix and Eric Drexler, "Safe Exponential Manufacturing", is an attempt to distance molecular manufacturing from fears of runaway self-replication.

Nanotechnology entrepreneur Jim Von Ehr says:

If molecular manufacturing is indeed feasible (and Feynman claimed it was, back in 1959), the step-function capabilities provided by those tools will be profoundly more powerful than the thermodynamic equilibrium self-assembly approach favored by our current NNP [National Nanotechnology Program]. It will be like a computer-controlled robotic machine shop making jets compared to breeding faster and larger passenger-carrying eagles for air transport... The Radical vision is currently being ignored as a 'crackpot theory', and while there is rhetoric on both sides, very few people are seriously working to demonstrate it, and nobody is scientifically challenging it. If something like this was to actually prove feasible, we could be surprised by the rate of change in the short timeframe during which it would roll out.

The Tangled Web of Policy Weaving    

"Imagine a medical device that travels through the human body to seek out and destroy small clusters of cancerous cells before they can spread. Or a box no larger than a sugar cube that contains the entire contents of the Library of Congress. Or materials much lighter than steel that possess ten times as much strength." U.S. National Science Foundation

With such near-miraculous benefits expected, nanotechnology appears to be a can't-miss choice for government funding of basic research. They could support scientists in learning about the properties of nanoscale materials, and in discovering how to put that knowledge to use in creating new technologies. They could support investigations into both short-term and long-term risks. They could be proactive in developing responsible policies. Couldn't they?

Ah, if only things were that simple.

With much patting on the back, both houses of Congress passed the "21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act" in December 2003 and President Bush signed it into law.

"This historic initiative will ensure that America is a competitive leader in the Nanotechnology Revolution," said Senator George Allen (R-VA). "Nanotechnology is a 'bottom-up' approach much like building a sculpture atom-by-atom and molecule-by-molecule instead of cutting it from a larger rock. It holds great advances for every aspect of the human endeavor, from agriculture, to health sciences, to energy, to material sciences and the environment."

However, all is not as rosy as it seems. It is true that nanotechnology can lead to great advances by building atom-by-atom and molecule-by-molecule in a bottom-up approach. But that type of nanotechnology is not supported by the Act that Congress passed. Instead, it earmarks funding for more mundane nanoscale science and technology research—important work, certainly, and arguably worth the money—but by itself it will not create a Nanotechnology Revolution.

"When one looks at the next 100 years of human development and the growth of the global economy, no vote taken by Congress in the past decade will have a greater effect then today's overwhelming passage of the nanotechnology bill," said Mark Modzelewski, former executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, an industry lobbying group.

Underneath all this hype and hope, however, there is uncertainty, confusion, and contradiction. The inconsistencies in U.S. nanotech policy are troubling to those who recognize the real meaning and significance of nanotechnology—there are a lot of contradictions, and they're glaring and important, possibly even dangerous.

Do Congress and the administration know what they are funding under the widely misunderstood heading of "nanotechnology"? Do they realize the full implications of their uncertainty and their contradictions?

ITEM: A pamphlet published by the U.S. National Science and Technology Council (a cabinet-level federal government council) talks of "shaping the world atom by atom" with nanotechnology, leading to "unprecedented control over the fundamental building blocks of all physical things." That is the conception of nanotechnology that most people have come to accept in recent years, as the field has grown and achieved public notice. But is that what the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is funding? Not at all. In fact, NNI leaders downplay such talk as science fiction. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised when federal officials can't agree on what they are doing.

ITEM: The kind of research that might lead to "building atom-by-atom and molecule-by-molecule in a bottom-up approach" is known as molecular manufacturing (MM). But instead of supporting that, the NNI keeps pushing for biochemical nanotechnology (bio-nano). However, Nobel prize-winning chemist Richard Smalley says, "Biology is wondrous in the vast diversity of what it can build, but it can't make a crystal of silicon, or steel, or copper, or aluminum, or titanium, or virtually any of the key materials on which modern technology is built. Without such materials, how is [nanotechnology] ever going to make a radio, or a laser, or an ultrafast memory, or virtually any other key component of modern technological society that isn’t made of rock, wood, flesh and bone?" Smalley is right. We won't be "shaping the world atom by atom" with bio-nano. Only molecular manufacturing can do that. But the NNI does not support MM research. Does Congress realize this?

ITEM: The recently passed Nanotechnology Act calls for a feasibility study of "molecular self-assembly", a confusing term that reportedly refers to bio-nano. But the capabilities of bio-nano are a known fact. What is there to study? University of Tennessee professor Glenn Reynolds says, "Given that self-assembling nanodevices have already been demonstrated, [this] seems unlikely to accomplish much: It's like performing a study to determine the feasibility of integrated circuit chips. Been there, done that. [This] may be an early sign that federal officials aren't really serious about developing what most people would consider to be true molecular manufacturing."

ITEM: The House of Representatives version of the Nanotechnology Act called for a study "on whether molecular manufacturing is technically feasible…and if found to be feasible — (A) the estimated timeframe in which molecular manufacturing may be possible on a commercial scale; and (B) recommendations for a research agenda necessary to achieve this result." This is precisely the kind of study that is urgently needed. But under pressure from a special interest group, language in the final version of the bill was changed and distorted to focus on bio-nano and exclude MM. Why? Whose interests are being protected? Certainly not the voters and taxpayers. This policy, as it stands, is not going to deliver on the promise of nanotechnology—not without molecular manufacturing.

ITEM: India's new President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam (who is, literally, a rocket scientist) has called for India to develop nanotechnology — including nanobots — because it will revolutionize warfare. Kalam is an "eminent nuclear and missile scientist".  Previously he had called for nanotech to be developed for cheaper space access and for health and food. But in a July 2004 speech to scientists at the Weapons and Electronic Systems Engineering Establishment (WESEE), a naval research and development outfit, President Kalam asserted that "this would revolutionize the total concepts of future warfare" and reportedly "asked the country's scientists to make a breakthrough." According to an Indian news article, he is seeking "super strong, smart and intelligent structures in the field of material science and this in turn could lead new production of nano robots with new types of explosives and sensors for air, land and space systems."

In conclusion, consider these words from a 2001 NATO report on emerging technologies: "Theoretical and computational models indicate that molecular manufacturing systems are possible—that they do not violate existing physical laws. These models also give us a feel for what a molecular manufacturing system might look like. Today, scientists are devising numerous tools and techniques that will be needed to transform nanotechnology from computer models into reality. While most remain in the realm of theory, there appears to be no fundamental barrier to their development."

Given all this, it is nearly inconceivable that U.S. policymakers would deliberately turn away from supporting the study of molecular manufacturing. Regrettably, it seems that they have.


bullet Omission in the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act
bullet Is This the Best of All Futures? (Howard Lovy for Small Times)


Missing the Point on Policy

In June 2004, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) convened a meeting of science policy representatives from 25 countries and the European Union to discuss how to carry out nanotechnology research and development "in a responsible manner." Unfortunately, they addressed only near-term nanoscale technologies such as nanoparticles. The most important long-term consequences of nanotechnology were ignored.

A report [PDF] on the proceedings of the meeting highlights the systematic failure of the NSF to address the most important issues raised by nanotechnology. By ignoring the societal impacts of molecular manufacturing, they miss the major significance of the technology.

"Molecular manufacturing needs to be addressed, and the NSF report is a big distraction," said Mike Treder, Executive Director of CRN. "They present themselves as asking the right questions, but the answers are worse than wrong: they are simply off-topic."

As an example, a question in the report about whether nanotechnology will be "inherently continuous or inherently disruptive" leads to a digression about "novel properties that only become evident at the nanoscale." In fact, molecular manufacturing is what will make nanotechnology disruptive.

"Molecular manufacturing is an inevitable consequence of advanced nanotechnology," said Chris Phoenix, CRN's Director of Research. "This is not acknowledged in the NSF report. We need to prepare for revolutionary changes, not just incremental improvements like new nanoparticles."

CRN urges the National Science Foundation and other organizations to correct this error, and begin addressing the long-term consequences of nanotechnology.


bullet The Nano-Ostrich Approach (Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds)
bullet Nanotech Schism (Adam Keiper in The New Atlantis)
bullet The Hollowness of Denial (Patrick Bailey for
bullet Nanotechnology Press Kit (Edited by

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