Open menu

Nanotechnology Spotlight

Behind the buzz and beyond the hype:
Our Nanowerk-exclusive feature articles

Posted: Jul 30, 2008

The debate about converging technologies: Political initiatives and activities

Previous chapter: Convergence Processes in Research and Development
The EU has now become the primary global actor with regard to activities in research policy that are explicitly related to processes of technoscientific convergence. During this expansion, the EU made itself largely independent of the content particularities of the American NBIC initiative, especially with regard to the emphasis on human enhancement. In the EU's Seventh Framework Program, the idea of convergence has developed into a key element in the support of nanoscience and nanotechnology and gained in significance in other areas, especially ICT and emerging technologies of the information society. At the same time, the EU has apparently become the most active party regarding funding of research on convergence that takes place outside the natural sciences, the so-called accompanying research. Germany's mark of distinction among countries is that it was the first country after the United States to create project support specifically for the research and further development of scientific and technological convergence processes. Canada and Spain have, in particular, initiated noteworthy steps to develop national convergence strategies. In India, prominent politicians have been extremely euphoric about the future perspectives of converging technologies, sometimes closely following the visionary program of the American NBIC initiative and the ideas of nanofuturism. As an important topic for the future, NBIC convergence has also found its way into the national strategy documents of South Africa (just as of Germany) on nanotechnology.  
With regard to future perspectives, the international development that might be of special interest for German policy is the degree to which the reassessment of the idea of convergence at the level of the EU will result in concrete funding measures and other, conceptual activities. It is also possible that the NBIC initiative or some other new force will once again renew the subject of convergence in the United States beyond the current, very circumscribed activities (e.g., in case there is a change with a new administration that may have to be less cautious regarding the concerns of conservative religious groups regarding far-reaching visions of convergence and human enhancement).  
United States  
The American NBIC convergence initiative originated in the context of political activities regarding the ethical, social, and legal implications of nanotechnology. This was a field in which the question of how futuristic visions should be handled played a central role from the very beginning. In addition to the focus chosen for the fields of definitions and objects, which have raised some questions especially about the understanding of cognitive science, the political-cultural aspects that have already been mentioned have above all made the NBIC initiative appear strange. It is obvious that the initiative has missed its goal of becoming an official political initiative, similar to the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).  
The results of the analysis also show that the NBIC initiative had already passed its zenith in 2003 and 2004. Important participating institutions, such as those from military research, had already withdrawn. Changes in staffing at its two primary supporting institutions, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce, led to particularly active members losing influence in this context. The appeal of the initiative to renowned scientists is also apparently less that was originally anticipated. Judging by the most recent publications, papers from the spectrum of organized transhumanism are obviously gaining in significance. Funding for research with an explicit reference to the NBIC or similar convergence concepts, which was rather limited even during the prime period of the NBIC initiative, is only present in a few activities of the National Science Foundation (especially for basic and accompanying research in nanoscience and for scientific cooperation).  
European Union  
In the Seventh Framework Program, the significance of the convergence concept increased at the strategic-programmatic level and in project funding. This is because:  
  • The concept is seen as substantially more important in the area of nanotechnology.
  • The activities of social scientific foresight have been further intensified.
  • The significance of the concept in the field of ICT has increased markedly (especially in the field of the so-called future and emerging technologies).
  • The concept can now occasionally be found in activities in biotechnology and the biosciences.
  • There are signs that it will continue to be used in projects concerning the ethical aspects of the NBIC technologies and the social dialogue about them and in the environmental sciences.
  •  
    We can assume that the dedicated support of scientific and technological convergence processes, especially between the NBIC areas, will continue to take place with increasing reference to the concept of convergence. At the level of the EU, especially by those responsible for the nanosciences and nanotechnologies, a special need is felt for the further development of an all-encompassing social and political vision of converging technologies, one which is tied to the core themes of EU policy, such as the knowledge society and quality of life. Building on the previous conceptual activities of the CTEKS expert group and other actors, several recently completed and current projects examine the social, economic, and ethical facets of convergence processes in science and technology. The entire range of views—from those of transhumanists to religious conservatives—can be found in the ethical and political discussion about converging technologies and human enhancement and about accompanying research that is funded, which has also been triggered by activities of the European Commission.  
    Undecided is whether the convergence concept will be important beyond the area of nanotechnology research, foresight, and ICT and whether the international CT debate will lose its previous focus on human enhancement. Also undecided is the future of the NBIC concept, which is also frequently used at the EU level: whether and, if yes, how the cognitive sciences can become a partner among equals with the three other fields is still largely unclear. There is a need for concretization and in particular for action on the suggestion made in the CTEKS agenda, namely to put the debate and actions regarding CT on a broader footing by systematically including other scientific, scholarly and technological perspectives and social groups.  
    Germany  
    At a political level but also beyond it, Germany's positions on the subject of convergence and the CT debate are relatively further developed. It is certain that:  
  • Although there are still few official activities that are explicitly concerned with the subject of convergence, in comparison to all the other countries (with the possible exception of the United States) Germany has achieved a relatively high degree of concrete activity (seen with regard to funding support for research).
  • Germany's focus on microsystem technology appears to be a promising approach that is oriented toward applications. In this focus, as is generally the case in the CT debate, the significance of cognitive science within the NBIC fields is still unclear.
  • German institutions have helped mold the international activities on foresight and technology assessment as well as the international academic discussion and research on the social, economic, ethical, and general philosophical and cultural facets of CT.
  • There are some indications that researchers working in Germany play an important role in those areas of research and development that are at the focus of the convergence debate.
  •  
    These findings, the last of which still has to be empirically verified, show that the topic of convergence has come of age in Germany. It is still questionable, however, whether the CT debate should be taken as the opportunity to politically promote the social dialogue about science and technology (and especially about the topic of human enhancement). Questionable is also whether the new concepts of convergence offer an occasion to critically examine the strategies for research policy and innovation policy. Given the current state of the debate, official German activities would presumably attract a high degree of attention. In making the political determination of whether this is desirable or not, it would be important to consider the social, ethical, and cultural aspects of the subject, not just the issues of research policy in a narrower sense.
    Next chapter: Options for Action and the Possible Requirements of Research
    Article top

    Subscribe! Receive a convenient email notification whenever a new Nanowerk Nanotechnology Spotlight posts.

    Become a Spotlight guest author! Have you just published a scientific paper or have other exciting developments to share with the nanotechnology community? Here is how to publish on nanowerk.com.