Sizing up the science, politics and business of nanotechnology

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Nano-this and nano-that. Nanotechnology moves into the public consciousness. This “nanotrend” has assumed “mega” proportions: Patent offices around the world are swamped with nanotechnology-related applications; investment advisors compile nanotechnology stock indices and predict a coming boom in nanotechnology stocks with estimates floating around of a trillion-dollar industry within 10 years; pundits promise a new world with radically different medical procedures, manufacturing technologies and solutions to environmental problems; nano conferences and trade shows are thriving all over the world; scientific journals are awash in articles dealing with nanoscience discoveries and nanotechnology breakthroughs. Nanotechnology has been plagued by a lot of hype, but cynicism and criticism have not been far behind. The media can run amok when news about potential health problems with nanoproducts surface (as recently happened with a product recall for a bathroom cleaner in Germany). These discussions around nanotechnology epitomize the contemporary processes of making the future present. An interesting approach to dealing with the lack of consensus in the views on nanotechnology identifies eight main nodes of nanotechnology discourse and describes these "islands" of discussion, examines their interactions and degrees of isolation from each other.
(Image: Avi Katz)
In a recent paper in the journal Futures ("A map of the nanoworld: Sizing up the science, politics, and business of the infinitesimal") attempts to identify how scientists, policymakers, entrepreneurs, educators, and environmentalists have drawn boundaries on issues relating to nanotechnology; describes concisely the perspectives from which these boundaries are drawn; and explores how boundaries on nanotechnology are marked and negotiated through contestations of power among various nodes of nanotechnology discourse.
The process of demarcating boundaries starts with the very definition of nanotechnology. Initial conceptions of nanotechnology were far more radical than currently realized and even considered realizable by many technoscientists. Molecular manufacturing, self-replicating miniature robots, etc., were conceived of as constituting what their proponents call true nanotechnology. But there is a large gap between the basic nanostructured materials being manufactured today and the potential of productive nanosystems.
Debashish Munshi, Associate Professor in Management Communication at the Waikato Management School in Hamilton, New Zealand, and lead author of the paper, explains to Nanowerk that the authors' analysis of the literature on nanotechnology reveals the following eight nodes of societal discussion on nanotechnology:
(1) technoscientists, especially those either working on or supervising some nanotechnological application who, almost invariably, tend to glorify nanotechnology;
(2) leaders of business and industry who want to cash in on the projected benefits by developing a market for nanotechnology-driven products;
(3) official or quasi-official bodies that generate a significant amount of literature;
(4) social science and humanities researchers who tend to focus on the social, economic, political, legal, religious, philosophical, and ethical implications of nanotechnology;
(5) fiction writers with imaginative scenarios, both utopian and dystopian;
(6) political activists, particularly those with an environmental worldview, who tend to extend to nanotechnology the issues long raised by them with regard to biotechnology;
(7) journalists and popular science writers who report on current events, perspectives, and funding regimes relating to the field; and
(8) John Q. and Jane D. Public, who are yet to significantly grapple with or discuss nanotechnology in any depth.
Here are the key points from this paper:
Node 1: Technoscientists
It seems that nanotechnology is suddenly everywhere in technoscientific circles. Most of the technoscientific literature is glib enough to not indicate possible failures. This is normal in technoscientific literature because the emphasis is on publishing positive and upbeat results whereas negative issues are considered as unnecessary distractions.
As of early 2006 there are at least 25 print journals and at least one virtual journal that are either wholly or substantially dedicated to nanotechnology, in addition to a vast array of other scientific and technical journals that occasionally publish accounts of nanotechnology research. The authors note that the (British) Institute of Physics’ Nanotechnology is perhaps the only technoscientific journal that has occasionally published articles not written by nanotechnology researchers. Of these articles, there is only one on socioethical issues emanating from possible industrial and economic success in nanotechnology.
Node 2: Leaders of business and industry
It seems that business has so far warmed up to the idea of investing in enterprises seeking the improvement of existing products (through evolutionary nanotechnology) and not so much to the creation of fundamentally new materials and applications (the revolutionary nanotechnology). Claims of improvement are most common for the paint and the cosmetics industries, as well as for their user industries. Semiconductor industries are also beginning to claim the benefits of nanolithography for shrinking device sizes and increasing packing densities in integrated chips. Many of the claimed advances are not only real but also cost effective; but these advances fall in the realm of incremental nanotechnology, which is far from revolutionary.
Venture capitalists, seeking to invest large amounts of liquid cash for relatively quick profits, generally form partnerships with university researchers with an entrepreneurial bent. Nano start-up companies are based on a key patent or two, and the capital supplied by the venture capitalists is then invested to turn the patents into marketable products.
The companies that are making significant investments in nanotechnology are ones that already have vast experience in the technology sector. Not surprisingly, BASF, Dow Chemical, DuPont, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and NEC hold most of the nanotech patents. Most of these companies are involved in incremental nanotechnology but hold out for a molecular revolution that will change the face of business.
Node 3: Official and quasi-official bodies
A significant "official" literature has been generated by government agencies, international governmental organizations, and government-supported science and technology academies. This activity was undoubtedly generated as nanotechnology is widely seen as having huge potential for many areas of research and application, and is attracting investments from governments and from businesses. Furthermore, nanotechnology raises new challenges in the safety, regulatory or ethical domains that will require societal debate.
The paper notes that "collectively, the many government and official reports that constitute the node of this serious discourse can be and are accessed across most of the other nodes, although most official reports themselves only acknowledge and explicitly draw upon the technoscientific and business discourse nodes (as well as other official reports)."
Node 4: Social science and humanities research
Some early scholarly researchers from the social sciences and humanities have attempted to explore the social, economic, political, legal, religious, philosophical, and ethical implications of nanotechnology for human societies, but these researchers have not produced literatures yet, nor have they coalesced into functioning research communities. This discourse node is still in a very early stage of development, which can be seen in its almost entirely outward focus – rarely do the scattered writings cite other published scholarly works in the humanities and social sciences, in part because even as late as 2005 there is still little to be cited.
Node 5: Fiction writers
Fiction writers from early on have explored the potentials of nanotechnology, raising questions that have in some instances then been taken up in other nodes. Almost all of the emergent science fiction on nanotechnology has been based on the concerns of current science, even as it stretches any scientific consensus on what is plausible.
Node 6: Political activists
A good example for activist groups is ETC (the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), a Canada-based activist group, which has produced a series of influential reports on the social implications of nanotechnology.
Activists – who have been politicized by policy debates over genetic modification of organisms – contribute in-depth reports, opinion pieces, and polemics to periodicals and mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times as well as to their own websites.
The varied activist reports and websites devoted to nanotechnology do monitor and respond to developments in Nodes 1 and 3, but with limited impact as yet on policy. It is primarily when their concerns get magnified through attention from the mainstream popular press that we see some acknowledgement from the technoscientists and government research-funding bodies.
Node 7: Science journalists and popular science writers
In terms of sheer volume, much of the writing in this category consists of short reports on current developments in nanotechnology. Much less common is critical journalism that looks at the current nanohype with any degree of skepticism. Just as research on the ethical implications of nanotechnology is scarce, as discussed for Node 4, reporting on the issue is generally confined to relatively brief statements about funding or legislative measures to deal with ethical issues.
Node 8: General public
The general public is, at best, dimly aware of the dimensions of nanotechnology, although the awareness is slowly growing, partly in response to initiatives taken by various governmental and nongovernmental groups. Although scant, the public’s view of nanotechnology probably differs from country to country, depending on national scientific aspirations and climate.
The authors make the interesting point that "it has long been well established by social scientists that technologies can be political – sometimes because certain technologies provide a convenient means of establishing patterns of power and authority, but sometimes because intractable properties of technologies are inherently linked to certain patterns of power and authority. It is certainly possible, perhaps likely, that the nanotechnology that emerges in coming years will have identifiable political qualities."
"That the power to define what is or what is not nanotechnology rests with technoscientists already points to a discursive power imbalance. It is this very power that privileges the technological aspects of a little-understood field over the social and cultural aspects. Riding piggy-back on this power of technoscientists are the captains of business and industry who are determined to capitalize on the lure of the label of nanotechnology."
Munshi and his colleagues argue that "challenging the power imbalances implicit and explicit in society will require education of technoscientists, politicians, economists, lawyers, social scientists, school teachers, and indeed every citizen. Ignorance about the various facets and implications of progress in nanotechnology being widespread, a program of general education and information is essential in today’s industrial societies."
Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
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