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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Nanoethics > The Wild West of Nanotechnology

Summer Johnson
Executive Managing Editor
The American Journal of Bioethics

Abstract:
Nanotechnology has been described as many things: the next industrial revolution, the great leveler, an emerging technology, even technology of the Singularity. Yet, I am going to liken the nanotechnology revolution to the American Wild West. Let me explain why a 19th century metaphor is apt and why its actually a good thing for nanotechnology's image, its regulation, or for its progress as we move forward in the 21st century to be likened to the era of gunslingers and cowboys.

April 25th, 2009

The Wild West of Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology has been described as many things: the next industrial revolution, the great leveler, an emerging technology, even technology of the Singularity. Yet, I am going to liken the nanotechnology revolution to the American Wild West. Let me explain why a 19th century metaphor is apt and why its actually a good thing for nanotechnology's image, its regulation, or for its progress as we move forward in the 21st century to be likened to the era of gunslingers and cowboys.

Applications for nanotechnology in stem cell research, to pick just a single area are increasing almost weekly. There is not a week that goes by that one cannot read in the news of some new technique developed for nanotechnology and stem cell research. In one of the best articles that I have seen to date on stem cell research and nanotechnology, now almost a year old, Xie already had identified for work in stem cell research ALONE more than 35 different nanotechnological applications for everything from stem cell transfection to stem cell tissue engineering to cell tracking and imaging. And this is just for stem cell research http://www.nanotech-now.com/columns/?article=161 .

Multiply this for nanotechnology methods for nanosurgery for every body part, then for drug delivery, then for diagnostics. You get the sense for how rapidly expanding the field of nanomedicine is growing. Multiply that times the amount of money being invested by NNI and venture capitalists and other private investment and you begin to grasp the grandiosity of nanomedicine as an endeavor. Then think about nanotechnology broadly. You begin to get the picture. Effectively it is like a group of self-replicating nanobots themselves. It is potentially a limitless field with limitless applications.

But this is precisely nanomedicine, as an interdisciplinary field's, Achilles heel and greatest asset. With so many potential applications and directions in which to grow, it is a field that has the potential to grow exponentially or to fold in on itself, if it is not careful. There is no single governmental agency given dominion to regulate nanotechnology and oversee its progress. It has no watchdog group to reign in rogue scientists, misfits or charlatans. There is no ethics organization, code of ethics for nanoscientists—which can hardly be a monolithic group when it is made up of material scientists, engineers, chemists, biologists, physists and more.

One case tells of the dangers of a rapidly growing field where the presumption is that researchers are ethical and that they are who they say they are. (All of the below details are based on a memorandum from one of the board members of the now dissolved AANM, who has asked that his name be kept confidential.) In 2003, Dr. Chiming Wei, professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, formed the American Academy of Nanomedicine (AANM). During its existence, AANM held annual meetings in Washington DC, had a prestigious Advisory Board containing members from the top schools of nanoscience in the country, had a broad and diverse membership of dues paying members, and an impressive looking website http://www.aananomed.org/ . The AANM partnered with the top academic publisher Elsevier to produce the journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology, and Medicine http://www.nanomedjournal.com/ of which Dr. Wei was the Editor. This non-profit organization, by all accounts, was flourishing in the height of the nanomedicine revolution—except for one catch: the organization, along with its founder, was a complete and total fraud.

(Disclosure: I gave an unpaid ethics talk to AANM in 2006 titled "A Needs Assessment for Ethics in Nanomedicine" and shook hands, once, with Dr. Wei.)

The AANM was never registered as a non-profit organization in any state, but was registered as a corporation to Dr. Wei. Nor did AANM ever receive tax-exempt status from the IRS, even though it, according to its Board received thousands of dollars in charitable donations. Dr. Wei repeatedly refused to reveal the financial status (or any financial institution information) to anyone, including the AANM Board. According to the Board, all membership dues, fellowship dues, annual meeting registration fees, fellowship fees, contributions, etc. were held in Dr. Wei's personal bank accounts. Records now indicate that AANM never filed corporate tax returns since its creation in 2003 and now the organization as well as Dr. Wei are being audited.

While sources say that Dr. Wei has set up an "International Academy of Nanomedicine" for the same purpose, I find no record of it anywhere on the Internet. However, in June 2008, I was invited to be a "founding member" of the organization. Moreover, I am stunned by the number of places in Google where conferences say they are supported by and even people's CVs say they are founding members of an organization that appears not to exist in any meaningful way.

The point of this story is not to indict any one man—although these facts do certainly suggest that Dr. Chiming Wei engaged in unethical business practices in the establishment of the AANM (and I could go on with the list of unethical acts, but I think one gets the picture)—but to point out that in a field growing exponentially with minimal regulation, significant venture capital and government funding, and even more opportunity for professional advancement and financial gain, there is also opportunity for ethical missteps, cutting corners, cheating, and outright criminal activity to take place. For all of the hope (and hype) that nanotechnology offers, a story like Dr. Chiming Wei reminds us that there are charlatans out there who can set back the real scientific progress by giving nanotechnology a bad name.

So how do you prevent the "wild west" from being so dangerous, yet keep it beautiful AND safe? You reign it in, a little bit at a time. You find a few sheriffs who understand the terrain and then you keep exploring and building. But you also remember that the Dr. Chiming Wei's are the exception and not the rule.

Summer Johnson, PhD
Columnist, Lifeboat Foundation
Executive Editor, The American Journal of Bioethics

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