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A look at where we stand with nanoscale technologies, August 2003

Exclusive interviews with leaders from around the world.

In Issue #2 of our Premium Newsletter (August 4th, 2003) we covered the debate over ethics, education, and regulation of nanotechnology. In the second half of the issue is an interview with 12 leaders and policy-shapers from around the world.

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Here are the Questions and selected Answers:

1. From your point of view, what is nanotechnology?

Tim Harper, Founder & President of CMP Científica, Founder and Executive Director of European NanoBusiness Association and an advisor to the US NanoBusiness Alliance: Nanotechnology is simply about understanding how things work on the atomic and molecular scale. We can then exploit this understanding to control properties of materials, whether it is in conducting polymers or drug delivery. It definitely isn't about little robots, and will not be for a long time.

2. Why are you involved with nanotechnology? What are your long-term goals for your area or field?

George Allen, Senator (R.-Va.), Coauthor with Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.) of S.189 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act: I am invigorated by the potential applications of nanotechnologies to transform all aspects of our economy in a magnificently positive way; unfortunately, in an area with so much potential, when we contemplate and debate nanotechnology, I would estimate that no more than 10% of the Senators or House members understand what nanoscience - nanotechnology is. Long-term, I think education, both in terms of awareness and participation, of members needs to be incorporated into any long-term plan as we debate and move legislation through the Congress.

3. What is your vision regarding the changes that nanotechnology will bring to society?

Jeffrey R. Harrow, Author The Harrow Technology Report, and Principal at The Harrow Group: Taken to its extreme, the entire value chain of our society, built around the relative scarcity of, and difficulty of producing "manufactured goods," could change. Imagine if we end up with "desktop manufactures" -- devices conceptually like an inkjet printer that, instead of building up layers of ink, build layers of atoms or molecules in exactly the correct 3D structures to produce a piece of silverware, or a working cell phone (of the latest design, of course, through licensing the "schematic" from the developer and downloading it over the Internet), or -- and here's where it gets really scary -- a living thing. "Intellectual property," rather than manufactured goods, might prevail, which would dramatically change our societies. (And, we'd better learn the "Napster" lesson, or there will be little long-term "product innovation"). See "A gadget geek's dream come true" for an example of preliminary work in this area.

4. How can government and educational institutions address the need for significantly larger numbers of nano-educated college grads?

Morten Bogedal, CEO Nordic Nanotech: Creating new national programs that will deal with this issue. In Denmark we have by law created the foundation for "producing" a large number of nanoeducated students, from bachelors to PhD's. More on this can be found on the Nanoforum webpages under Nanoforum Publications.

5. Given that most people do not have advanced science training, how can they participate in the debate over advanced technologies? What, if anything, are you planning to do to educate or enable public debate in these areas?

Dennis Wilson (1), Chief Technology Officer, Chairman of the Board and Founder Nanotechnologies Inc.: I believe it is extremely difficult for anyone that lacks the proper scientific and technological background to effectively participate in this debate. Most criticism of nanotechnology is generally based more on emotion that fact. I will use the example of nuclear power. In general the public is against further development of nuclear power plants because of emotional issues surrounding radiation hazards. However, coal fired plants are deemed safe, when in fact the background radiation from burning coal (with traces of uranium) is higher that the background radiation from nuclear plants. Having said this, I still think it is important for the public to bring to the surface any concerns and challenge developments that they might feel are unsafe. This will force the scientific community to address these concerns appropriately.

6. Given that any technology poses some degree of risk to people and the environment, what do we need to do in order to avoid serious and unexpected harm arising from nanotechnology?

A.S.Daar, Director of the Program in Applied Ethics and Biotechnology at the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics: Bans or moratoria on research, development and deployment can be counter-productive. Moratoria, for example, remove from public discourse the very subjects that need public engagement. Instead there should be governance mechanisms that both address risks and increase utility and whatever public good characteristics of nanotechnology as can be sustained. Decision-making should be accountable, transparent, responsive and inclusive. Scientists need to learn to work with non-scientists.

7. Several leading researchers have predicted an unprecedented rapid development of extremely powerful technologies, and been proven correct. And the trend continues, upward. In your opinion, does this require the development of new ethics and/or regulations?

Bo Varga: Yes, with the focus on openness - and not on closed. Unfortunately the current (U.S.) administration has moved to "trust us" and "you don't ask and we don't tell" and this is precisely the environment where abuses can occur.

8. What risks do you expect from future nanotechnologies, including molecular manufacturing? What, if anything, are you planning to do to address public concerns about issues such as gray goo?

Vic Peña (1), Co-Founder and CEO nanoTitan: If the proper conventions are in place, I don't see too much danger from future technologies. With regard to the issue of grey goo, the public certainly should be made aware of the risks, but so too should they be assured of the low probabilities of such occurrence given existing conventions and adherence to these.

9. How can the benefits of new technology, including nanotechnology, be made available to all people, not just an elite?

Cathy Murphy (1), Professor of Chemistry, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of South Carolina: By making the technical advances cheap enough, and "green" enough, for people even in developing countries to take advantage of it.

10. By necessity, government plays a role in many aspects of our lives. What role do you see government playing in the development of nanoscale technologies?

Lerwen Liu, President nABACUS Partners: Government leads to make its policy strategically and put their own country in the global perspective. Government must work with the academia, industry and business to coordinate S & T policy to ensure the taxpayer's money is well spent.

11. What role can nanoscale technologies play in any given country's growth within the global economy?

Ottilia Saxl, IoN European Board, and Founding Director of The Institute of Nanotechnology: It is the basis of new products; so design and manufacturing companies will need to plan for the utilization and adoption of nanotechnologies in the future.

12. If you could sit down with the leaders of every country and talk to them about the development of nanotechnology, what issues would you focus on?

Neil Gordon, Partner-Nanotechnology with Sygertech and President of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance: Most political systems place a high priority on short-term deliverables since their parties and leaders may not be in power for subsequent terms to see the benefits of long-term actions. Unfortunately, the current state of nanotechnology is not in line with many political milestones.

The worst mistake is to do nothing, as their countries could miss out on the nanotechnology revolution. Alternatively, if investments are made entirely in education and research, without consideration for commercialization and industry support, the country or region could end up as a farm system where talent and licenses migrate to well positioned and creatively funded industrial nanotech hubs being developed in other countries and regions.

(1) NTAG - Nanotechnology Technical Advisory Group

Named by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)

"The NTAG is composed of leading experts in nanotechnology representing a range of disciplines, and was established to serve as a source of technical facts and information needed to assist the Council in the area of nanotechnology, particularly in reviewing current U.S. government-sponsored nanotech research and funding efforts. As part of NTAG, PCAST has formed three Task Forces in the following areas: Materials/Electronics/Photonics; Energy/Environment; and Biology/Medicine/Societal Issues." From White House Names NanoBusiness Alliance's Executive Director to Nanotechnology Advisory Panel.

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