Enhanced abilities to understand and manipulate matter
at the molecular and atomic levels promise a wave of
significant new technologies over the next five decades.
Dramatic breakthroughs will occur in diverse areas such
as medicine, communications, computing, energy, and
robotics. These changes will generate large amounts of
wealth and force wrenching changes in existing markets
This paper discusses the range of sciences currently
covered by nanotechnology. It begins with a description
of what nanotechnology is and how it relates to previous
scientific advances. It then describes the most likely
future development of different technologies in a
variety of fields. The paper also reviews the
government’s current nanotechnology policy and makes
some suggestions for improvement.
In 1970 Alvin Toffler, noted technologist and futurist, argued that
the acceleration of technological and social change was likely to
challenge the capacity of both individuals and institutions to
understand and to adapt to it.1
Although the world has changed a great deal since then, few would
argue that the pace of change has had the discontinuous effects that
1 Future Shock, Amereon Ltd. (1970).
However, rapid advances in a number of
fields, collectively known as nanotechnology, make it possible that
Mr. Toffler’s future has merely been delayed. In fact, some
futurists now talk about an unspecified date sometime around the
middle of this century when, because of the accelerating pace of
technology, life will be radically different than at any prior time.
This paper discusses the range of sciences currently covered by
nanotechnology. It begins with a description of what nanotechnology
is and how it relates to previous scientific advances. It then
describes the most likely future development of different
technologies in a variety of fields.
The paper also reviews the federal
government’s current nanotechnology policy and makes some
suggestions for improvement.
A nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a
meter. For comparison purposes, the width of an average hair is
100,000 nanometers. Human blood cells are 2,000 to 5,000 nm long, a
strand of DNA has a diameter of 2.5 nm, and a line of ten hydrogen
atoms is one nm.2 The
last three statistics are especially enlightening. First, even
within a blood cell there is a great deal of room at the nanoscale.
Nanotechnology therefore holds out the
promise of manipulating individual cell structure and function.
Second, the ability to understand and manipulate matter at the level
of one nanometer is closely related to the ability to understand and
manipulate both matter and life at their most basic levels: the atom
and the organic molecules that make up DNA.
2 Small Wonders, Endless Frontiers: A Review of the National
Nanotechnology Initiative, National Research Council, Washington
D.C., 2002, p. 5.
Nanotechnology can be viewed on a variety of levels. The U.S.
National Nanotechnology Initiative defines nanotechnology as:
“[T]he science, engineering, and
technology related to the understanding and control of matter at
the length scale of approximately 1 to 100 nanometers. However,
nanotechnology is not merely working with matter at the
nanoscale, but also research and development of materials,
devices, and systems that have novel properties and functions
due to their nanoscale dimensions or components”
A joint report by the British Royal
Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering similarly defined
“the design, characterization, production, and
application of structures, devices and systems by controlling shape
and size at nanometer scale.” 4
The application of nanotechnology can occur in one, two or three
dimensions. Thus it includes the use of an oxygen plasma 25 atoms
thick to bind a layer of indium phosphide to silicon in order to
make a computer chip that uses lasers to transmit data at 100 times
the speed of current communications equipment.5
In two dimensions it includes the
manufacture of carbon nanotubes only one nanometer in diameter that
may be eventually reach several centimeters in length. In three
dimensions it encompasses the manufacture of small particles no more
than a few nanometers in any dimension that might be used as an
ingredient in sunscreens or to deliver medicine to a specific type
of cell in the body.
In a more general context nanotechnology can be seen as just the
current stage of a long-term ability to understand and manipulate
matter at ever smaller scales as time goes by. Over the last
century, physicists and biologists have developed a much more
detailed understanding of matter at finer and finer levels. At the
same time, engineers have gradually acquired the ability to reliably
manipulate material to increasingly finer degrees of precision.
Although we have long known much of what
happens at the nanolevel, the levels of knowledge implied by;
1) knowing about the
existence of atoms,
2) actually seeing them,
3) manipulating them, and
4) truly understanding how
they work, are dramatically different.
The last two stages especially open up
significant new technological abilities. At the nanolevel technology
has just recently reached these stages.
Two examples indicate the significance of current research.
Biologists have known about the basic building blocks of DNA since
1953, but until recently did not know the exact DNA sequence of a
human being. This occurred in the last decade. Viruses were another
mystery, but now scientists not only know the DNA sequence, they
have used this knowledge to build a virus that assembles a battery.6
3 The National Nanotechnology
Initiative at Five Years: Assessment and Recommendations of the
National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel, President’s Council of
Advisors on Science and Technology, Washington D.C., May 2005, p. 7.
4 Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies:
Opportunities and Uncertainties, Royal Society and The Royal Academy
of Engineering, UK, July 2004, p. 5.
5 Markoff, John, “A Chip That Can Move Data at the Speed of Laser
Light,” New York Times, September, 18, 2006, p. C1.
6 “Powerful Batteries That Assemble Themselves.” Technology Review,
As a second example, rather than just being able to see individual
atoms with an electron microscope, scientists can now place a 20-nm
indentation on a piece of material, creating a data storage system
with the capacity to store 25 million printed textbook pages on a
square inch chip.7
What makes work at the nanolevel more than just a natural
progression of earlier work at the micro and macro levels of matter?
For one thing the basic building blocks of matter and life occur at
Molecular chemistry, genetic
reproduction, cellular processes, and the current frontier of
electronics all occur on the nanolevel. Understanding how these
processes work and, more importantly, being able to reliably
manipulate events at this level in order to get specific outcomes,
opens up the possibility of significant new advances in a wide
variety of fields including electronics, medicine, and material
Second, the nanolevel represents the overlap between traditional
physics and quantum mechanics. At this scale the physical, chemical,
and biological properties of materials differ in fundamental ways
from the properties of either individual atoms or bulk matter.8
This makes the prediction of cause and effect relationships much
more difficult and introduces phenomena such as quantum tunneling,
superposition, and entanglement. As a result, material at the
nanoscale can exhibit surprising characteristics that are not
evident at large scales.
Collections of gold particles can
appear orange, purple, red, or greenish, depending upon the
specific size of the particles making up the sample.9
Carbon atoms in the form of a
nanotube exhibit tensile strengths 100 times that of steel and
can be either metallic or semiconducting depending on their
Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide,
common ingredients in sun screen, both appear white when made of
macro particles. But when the particles are ground to the
nanoscale, they appear translucent.
7 Richard Booker and Earl Boysen,
Nanotechnology for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Inc., (2005) pp.
8 The National Nanotechnology
Initiative Strategic Plan, National Science and Technology Council,
Washington D.C., December 2004, p. i.
9 Mark Ratner and Daniel Ratner, Nanotechnology: A Gentle
Introduction to the Next Big Idea, Prentice Hall (2003) p. 13.
The Progression of
If it seems that nanotechnology has begun to blossom in the
last ten years, this is largely due to the development of new
instruments that allow researchers to observe and manipulate matter
at the nanolevel. Technologies such as scanning tunneling
microscopy, magnetic force microscopy, and electron microscopy allow
scientists to observe events at the atomic level.
At the same time, economic pressures in
the electronics industry have forced the development of new
lithographic techniques that continue the steady reduction in
feature size and cost. Just as Galileo’s knowledge was limited by
the technology of his day, until recently a lack of good
instrumentation prevented scientists from gaining more knowledge of
As better instrumentation for observing,
manipulating and measuring events at this scale are developed,
further advances in our understanding and ability will occur. One
leader in nanotechnology policy has identified four distinct
generations in the development of nanotechnology products, to which
we can add a possible fifth:10
10 M.C. Roco, ”Nanoscale Science and
Engineering: Unifying and Transforming Tools” AIChE Journal Vol. 50,
No. 5, pp. 895-6. Until recently, Dr. Roco chaired the U.S. National
Science Technology Council’s Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science,
Engineering and Technology.
During the first period products will take advantage of the
passive properties of nanomaterials, including nanotubes and
nanolayers. For example, titanium dioxide is often used in
sunscreens because it absorbs and reflects ultraviolet light.
When broken down into nanoparticles it becomes transparent to
visible light, eliminating the white cream appearance associated
with traditional sunscreens. Carbon nanotubes are much stronger
than steel but only a fraction of the weight. Tennis rackets
containing them promise to deliver greater stiffness without
additional weight. As a third example, yarn that is coated with
a nanolayer of material can be woven into stain-resistant
clothing. Each of these products takes advantage of the unique
property of a material when it is manufactured at a nanoscale.
However, in each case the nanomaterial itself remains static
once it is encapsulated into the product.
Active Nanostructures (2005-2010)
Active nanostructures change their state during use,
responding in predicable ways to the environment around them.
Nanoparticles might seek out cancer cells and then release an
attached drug. A nanoelectromechancial device embedded into
construction material could sense when the material is under
strain and release an epoxy that repairs any rupture. Or a layer
of nanomaterial might respond to the presence of sunlight by
emitting an electrical charge to power an appliance. Products in
this phase require a greater understanding of how the structure
of a nanomaterial determines its properties and a corresponding
ability to design unique materials. They also raise more
advanced manufacturing and deployment challenges.
Systems of Nanosystems
In this stage assemblies of nanotools work together to
achieve a final goal. A key challenge is to get the main
components to work together within a network, possibly
exchanging information in the process. Proteins or viruses might
assemble small batteries. Nanostructures could self-assemble
into a lattice on which bone or other tissues could grow. Smart
dust strewn over an area could sense the presence of human
beings and communicate their location. Small
nanoelectromechancial devices could search out cancer cells and
turn off their reproductive capacity. At this stage significant
advancements in robotics, biotechnology, and new generation
information technology will begin to appear in products.
Molecular Nanosystems (2015-2020)
This stage involves the intelligent design of molecular and
atomic devices, leading to “unprecedented understanding and
control over the basic building blocks of all natural and
Although the line between this stage and the last blurs, what
seems to distinguish products introduced here is that matter is
crafted at the molecular and even atomic level to take advantage
of the specific nanoscale properties of different elements.
Research will occur on the interaction between light and matter,
the machine-human interface, and atomic manipulation to design
Among the examples that Dr. Roco
foresees are “multifunctional molecules, catalysts for synthesis
and controlling of engineered nanostructures, subcellular
interventions, and biomimetics for complex system dynamics and
the path from initial discovery to product application takes
the initial scientific foundations for these technologies are
already starting to emerge from laboratories. At this stage a
single product will integrate a wide variety of capacities
including independent power generation, information processing
and communication, and mechanical operation. Its manufacture
implies the ability to rearrange the basic building blocks of
matter and life to accomplish specific purposes.
11 M.C. Roco, “International
Perspective on Government Nanotechnology Funding in 2005,”
Journal of Nanoparticle Research, Vol. 7, No. 6, p. 707.
12 M.C. Roco, “Nanoscale Science and Engineering: Unifying and
Transforming Tools” AIChE Journal Vol. 50, No. 5, p. 896.
Nanoproducts regularly applied to a
field might search out and transform hazardous materials and mix
a specified amount of oxygen into the soil. Nanodevices could
roam the body, fixing the DNA of damaged cells, monitoring vital
conditions and displaying data in a readable form on skin cells
in a form similar to a tattoo. Computers might operate by
reading the brain waves of the operator.
The Singularity (2020 and beyond)
Every exponential curve eventually reaches a point where the
growth rate becomes almost infinite. This point is often called
the Singularity. If technology continues to advance at
exponential rates, what happens after 2020?
Technology is likely
to continue, but at this stage some observers forecast a period
at which scientific advances aggressively assume their own
momentum and accelerate at unprecedented levels, enabling
products that today seem like science fiction. Beyond the
Singularity, human society is incomparably different from what
it is today. Several assumptions seem to drive predictions of a
14 Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend
Biology, Viking Press (2005).
The first is that continued material
demands and competitive pressures will continue to drive
Second, at some point artificial
intelligence advances to a point where computers enhance and
accelerate scientific discovery and technological change. In
other words, intelligent machines start to produce discoveries
that are too complex for humans.
Finally, there is an assumption
that solutions to most of today’s problems including material
scarcity, human health, and environmental degradation can be
solved by technology, if not by us, then by the computers we
Whether or not one believes in the
Singularity, it is difficult
to overestimate nanotechnology’s likely implications for
society. For one thing, advances in just the last five years
have proceeded much faster than even the best experts had
predicted. Looking forward, science is likely to continue
outrunning expectations, at least in the medium term.
Although science may advance
rapidly, technology and daily life are likely to change at a
much slower pace for several reasons.
First, it takes time for
scientific discoveries to become embedded into new products,
especially when the market for those products is uncertain.
Second, both individuals and institutions can exhibit a great
deal of resistance to change.
Because new technology often
requires significant organizational change and cost in order to
have its full effect, this can delay the social impact of new
discoveries. For example, computer technology did not have a
noticeable effect on economic productivity until it became
widely integrated into business offices and, ultimately,
business processes. It took firms over a decade to go from
replacing the typewriters in their office pools to rearranging
their entire supply chains to take advantage of the Internet.
Although some firms adopted new
technologies rapidly, others, lagged far behind.
Nanotechnology is distinguished by its interdisciplinary nature. For
one thing, investigations at the nanolevel are occurring in a
variety of academic fields. More important, the most advanced
research and product development increasingly requires knowledge of
disciplines that, until now, operated largely independently.
These areas include:
Physics — The construction of
specific molecules is governed by the physical forces between
the individual atoms composing them.
Nanotechnology will involve the continued design of novel
molecules for specific purposes. However, the laws of physics
will continue to govern which atoms will interact with each
other and in what way. In addition, researchers need to
understand how quantum physics affects the behavior of matter
below a certain scale.
Chemistry — The interaction
of different molecules is governed by chemical forces.
Nanotechnology will involve the controlled interaction of
different molecules, often in solution. Understanding how
different materials interact with each other is a crucial part
of designing new nanomaterials to achieve a given purpose.
Biology — A major focus of
nanotechnology is the creation of small devices capable of
processing information and performing tasks on the nanoscale.
The process by which information encoded in DNA is used to build
proteins, which then go on to perform complex tasks including
the building of more complex structures, offers one possible
template. A better understanding of how biological systems work
at the lowest level may allow future scientists to use similar
processes to accomplish new purposes. It is also a vital part of
all research into medical applications.
Computer Science — Moore’s
Law and its corollaries, the phenomena whereby the price
performance, speed, and capacity of almost every component of
the computer and communications industry has improved
exponentially over the last several decades, has been
accompanied by steady miniaturization. Continued decreases in
transistor size face physical barriers including heat
dissipation and electron tunneling that require new technologies
to get around. In addition, a major issue for the use of any
nanodevices will be the need to exchange information with them.
Finally, scientific advances will require the ability to manage
increasingly large amounts of information collected from a large
network of sensors.15
Electrical Engineering — To
operate independently, nanodevices will need a steady supply of
power. Moving power into and out of devices at that scale
represents a unique challenge. Within the field of information
technology, control of electric signals is also vital to
transistor switches and memory storage. A great deal of research
is also going into developing nanotechnologies that can generate
and manage power more efficiently.
Mechanical Engineering — Even
at the nanolevel issues such as load bearing, wear, material
fatigue, and lubrication still apply. Detailed knowledge of how
to actually build devices that do what we want them to do with
an acceptable level of confidence will be a critical component
of future research.
Unfortunately, most of academia and the
research community do not facilitate this type of multidisciplinary
research. Work often tends to be compartmentalized into disciplines
and subdisciplines with their own vocabularies. Research proposals
are evaluated by experts within one area who neither understand nor
appreciate developments in other fields. Young people coming into a
field are usually rewarded for extending existing lines of research
and take a risk if they try to look at the unexamined gaps between
Yet in nanotechnology most of the great possibilities are precisely
in these gaps. In 2002 the National Academy of Sciences listed
several important areas for investment in nanotechnology. All of
them involved interdisciplinary research.16
15 See, Microsoft Corporation, Toward
2020 Science, available at
16 National Academy of Sciences,
Small Wonders, Endless Frontiers, Washington D.C., 2002, pp. 36-45.
The National Science Foundation is trying to encourage such research
by awarding grants specifically for it.
With so many sciences having input into nanotechnology research, it
is only natural that the results of this research are expected to
have a significant impact on a similarly broad range of
applications. Ray Kurzwiel labels these applications genetics,
nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR),17 to which one can add
information technology (GRIN).18
The National Nanotechnology Initiative has adopted
the similar classification of nanotechnology, biotechnology,
information technology, and cognitive science (NBIC).19
17 Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is
Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Viking Press (2005), pp.
18 Joel Garreau, Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of
Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies – and What it Means to Be Human,
19 Mihail C. Roco, “The Emergence and Policy Implications of
Converging New Technologies,” In William Sims Bainbridge and Mihail
C. Roco (Eds.), Managing Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno Innovations: Converging
Technologies in Society, Springer (2006), pp. 8-22.
These sciences interrelate in a number
Nanotechnology often refers to research in a wide number of
fields including the other three listed below. But in its
limited sense it refers to the ability to observe and manipulate
matter at the level of the basic molecules that govern genetics,
cell biology, chemical composition, and the current and future
generations of electronics. Researchers can then apply this
ability to advance science in other fields. The broader
definition of nanotechnology applies throughout most of this
paper, but it is worth remembering that advances in other
sciences depend on continued improvements in the ability to
observe, understand, and control matter at the nanolevel. This
in turn will require more accurate and less expensive
instrumentation and better techniques for producing large
numbers of nanodevices.
Biotechnology (Genetics) —
Nanotechnology promises an increased understanding and
manipulation of the basic building blocks underlying all living
matter. The basic theory of genetic inheritance has been known
for some time. But biologists do not fully understand the
details of how life goes from a single fertilized egg with a
full set of chromosomes to a living animal. Questions exist on
exactly how the information encoded in DNA is transcribed, the
role of proteins, the internal workings of the cell and many
Basically DNA consists of a long
string of four molecules; adenine, thymine, guanine, and
cytosine. Since these molecules are read off in units of three
(called codons), there are 64 possible combinations. Each
combination corresponds to one of 20 amino acids. The amino
acids in turn form proteins that fold in unique three
dimensional ways and perform many of the functions within
individuals cells. On a basic level, research is allowing us to
tease out the genetic basis for specific diseases and in the
future may reliably allow us to correct harmful mutations.
But what would a full understanding
of the genetic process give us? Could we develop DNA that uses a
fifth and sixth molecule? Could the existing process be
reprogrammed to code for more than 20 amino acids? To what
extent is it possible to create brand new proteins that perform
A better understanding of biological
processes is obviously needed in order to deliver the health
benefits that nanotechnology promises. But it is also important
for many reasons outside of biology. Those used to traditional
manufacturing techniques may at first have difficulty with the
concept of building a product up from the molecular level.
Biology offers a template for doing so. A single fertilized egg
in the womb eventually becomes a human being; a system of
incredible complexity from a simple set of instructions 2.5 nm
in diameter. Scientists are hopeful that similar processes can
be used to produce a range of other products.
Information Technology —
Progress in information processing has depended on the continued
application of Moore’s law, which predicts a regular doubling of
the number of transistors that can be placed on a computer chip.
This produced exponential improvements in computing speed and
price performance. Current computer technology is based on the
Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS). The present
generation of computer chips already depends on features as
small as 70 nanometers.
Foreseeable advances in
nanotechnology are likely to extend CMOS technology out to 2015.
However, at transistor densities beyond that several problems
start to arise. One is the dramatic escalation in the cost of a
new fabrication plant to manufacture the chips. These costs must
be amortized over the cost of the transistors, keeping them
expensive. Second, it becomes increasingly difficult to
dissipate the heat caused by the logic devices. Lastly, at such
small distances, electrons increasingly tunnel between materials
rather than going through the paths programmed for them. As a
result of these constraints, any continuation of Moore’s Law
much beyond 2015 is likely to require the development of one or
more new technologies.
Future advances will also bring us closer to a world of free
memory, ubiquitous data collection, massive serial processing of
data using sophisticated software, and lightening-fast,
always-on transmission. What happens when almost all information
is theoretically available to everyone all the time?
Cognitive Sciences (Robotics)
— Continued advances in computer science combined with a much
better understanding of how the human brain works should allow
researchers to develop software capable of duplicating and even
improving on many aspects of human intelligence. Although
progress in Artificial Intelligence has lagged the expectations
of many of its strongest proponents, specialized software
continues to advance at a steady rate.
Expert software now outperforms the
best humans in a variety of tasks simply because it has
instantaneous access to a vast store of information that it can
quickly process. In addition, researchers continue to develop a
much better understanding of how individual sections of the
brain work to perform specific tasks.
As processing power continues to get
cheaper, more and more of it will be applied to individual
Represent a Danger to Society?
Few people would doubt that technology has brought great benefits to
human society. Even those who are often the most vocal in shunning
it are usually quick to adopt those aspects, such as better health
and communication, which suit their purposes. In spite of these
benefits, society has a love/hate relationship with new advances.
This is partially because new technology always creates new economic
possibilities, which upset those benefiting from the status quo.
Luddites destroyed the first weaving
machines because they threatened their existing jobs. The protesters
gave little thought to the masses of people who might, for the first
time, be able to purchase a second set of clothes at an affordable
price. Perhaps deeper is an uneasiness with the uncertainty of where
technology might ultimately take us. Is there such as thing as too
much progress? Who exactly will benefit? What possible problems lurk
and how will we deal with them? What are the social implications?
These and other unanswerable questions
have often been used as excuses to forego technology’s benefits in
favor of the comfort of today’s problems.
Nanotechnology has generated similar concerns. In perhaps the best
known example, Bill Joy, former chief technology officer for
Microsystems, wrote an article in which he seriously questioned the
wisdom of going forward with current research.20
20 Bill Joy, “Why The Future Doesn’t Need
Us” Wired, April 2000.
Mr. Joy’s fears revolved around three
Nanodevices that get out of control.
The minuteness of the nanoscale and the vast number of
nanoorganisms or devices that are needed to be effective at a
macroscale implies a certain loss of control once they are
released into the environment. We will have created a lot of
them and we will have trouble knowing exactly where they are or
what they are doing.
Some have expressed the fear that self-replicating nanobots
might multiply out of control, eventually consuming all matter
and covering the world in a “grey goo.” This threat, first
raised by Eric Drexler in his book Engines of Creation and later
the subject of a novel by Michael Crichton has since been widely
discredited by most scientists. Beyond the issue that no one now
knows how to make self-replicating machines, there are serious
questions about how such a process could sustain itself without
any clear source of energy. Even Eric Drexler has testified that
the grey goo scenario is the wrong issue to focus on.21
21 The Royal Society and Royal
Academy of Engineering, Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies:
Opportunities and Uncertainties, RS Policy Document 19/04, July
2004, p. 109.
The rapid proliferation of the
knowledge and equipment needed to create new biological life
Mr. Joy is especially concerned that this knowledge
intentionally will be used to create and release new pathogens.
Unlike nuclear technology, the capacity to create biological
weapons of mass destruction requires far less capital investment
and is much easier to conceal. This concern is one that will
have to be addressed. However, it is very hard to see how
society can totally avoid this risk without at the same time
giving up on technologies that promise to cure cancer, correct
genetic defects, and create new organisms capable of cleaning up
22 See also,
Mark Williams, “The
Knowledge,” Technology Review, (March/April 2006), p. 44.
Mr. Joy’s final concern was that
advances in information technology and artificial intelligence
will eventually create an intelligence superior to ours, which
may not act solely in our interest. Again Mr. Joy is far more
likely to be right about the direction of technology than about
its evil effects. The history of technology is that its benefits
have vastly outweighed its dangers and that society has
eventually found ways to manage even the worst dangers, often
using further advances in technology. As with biotechnology, it
is hard to see how society could avoid the possibility of
running this danger without at the same time giving up all the
benefits that greater automation promises.
Some applications will be harmful and
good science is needed to detect and respond to these harms as early
as possible. Any broad technology brings both benefits and dangers.
As discussed below, certain applications of nanotechnology do
present serious environmental and health issues.
These applications will have to be
monitored and, if the harm outweighs the benefits, curtailed. But
such decisions should be made on the basis of sound science, not
emotional appeals about the dangers of the unknown. And government
policy should reflect the fact that on the whole nanotechnology is
expected to bring large net benefits to society and should be
Yet, the fear of technology displacing humans runs deep in the human
psyche and explains events as diverse as the persecution of Copernicus and
Galileo, the Salem Witch Trials, and the continued
popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein over a century after it
was first written. There is also a strong tradition of Luddite
opposition to any technology that threatens the existing market of
any special interest. Presently, universities, optometrists,
realtors, car dealerships, and others are all scrambling to protect
themselves from competition enabled by the Internet. The special
interests that seek these protections almost always try to justify
them as efforts to protect consumers or society.
Any application of technology that causes large costs quickly draws
society’s attention to it and the costs it imposes provide a strong
incentive to correct them. There are therefore reasons to think
that, with careful monitoring any product that actually causes
severe harm to the environment or health can be removed relatively
Although there are legitimate issues
about nanotechnology’s effects, any proper discussion of regulation
should explicitly acknowledge the danger of letting special
interests on either side hijack the process by using legitimate
concerns as a pretext for barriers whose main purpose is really to
satisfy the interests of narrow groups or to fan unfounded fears.
Regulation should also explicitly weigh
the risk of inhibiting beneficial uses against the benefit of
preventing harmful applications.
Policy Toward Nanotechnology
We should view government policy in this context. As explained
above, nanotechnology is still in its early stages. Many of the most
valuable commercial applications are decades away and require
continued advances in basic and applied science. As a result,
government funding still constitutes a large proportion of total
spending on research and development.
Within the United States, this spending
is guided by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).23
The NNI coordinates the policy of 25 government agencies, including
13 that have budgets for nanotechnology research and development.24
It has set up an infrastructure of over 35 institutions across the
country to conduct basic research and facilitate the transfer of
technology to the private sector.
The NNI’s strategic plan sets out four main goals:25
Maintain a world-class research
and development program to exploit the full potential of
Facilitate the transfer of
nanotechnology into products for economic growth, jobs, and
other public benefits.
Develop educational resources, a
skilled workforce, and the supporting infrastructure to
Support responsible development
23 Significant legislation governing
the NNI includes the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and
Development Act (P.L. 108-153). Interagency coordination is managed
by the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee
within the National Science and Technology Council.
24 For a good description of the NNI,
see, National Science and Technology Council, The National
Nanotechnology Initiative: Supplement to the President’s 2007
Budget, Washington D.C., July 2006. Available at
25 National Science and Technology Council, The National
Nanotechnology Initiative, Strategic Plan, Washington D.C., December
2004. Available at:
The NNI is clearly geared toward
developing the technology on a broad front, correctly seeing it as
the source of tremendous benefits to society. Its mission is not to
see whether we should go forward with research and development. It
is to go forth boldly, while trying to discover and deal with
Despite the fears expressed by Bill Joy, there is relatively little
serious debate among policymakers over possible long-term
existential threats to mankind. The main topics of discussion are
the possible health risks associated with nanoparticles and the need
for greater public participation in the development of the
Each of these topics is worthy of
discussion, but their implications for public policy are much more
nuanced than many of their proponents realize. Neither is likely to
seriously affect the broad development of these new technologies
although they could improve the net benefits that society realizes
A number of concerns have been raised about the effect nanoparticles
might have on human health. Precisely because of their small size,
there is some fear that they might unintentionally penetrate the
normal biological barriers that protect human health.
For instance, could a certain particle
penetrate human skin, from there cross tissue protecting the brain
from foreign chemicals and finally migrate through cell walls to
interfere with cell function? Note that in the future, some
particles might be specifically designed to do exactly that in order
to deliver medication to patients with brain tumors. The concern
here is with unintentional exposures. The human body has already
evolved defenses against constant exposure to a large variety of
nanoparticles, including soot and bacteria.
However, in the future many
nanoparticles will have novel structures that neither our immune
systems nor the environment have ever come into contact with before.
Several animal studies show that certain exposures can lead to
health problems, but it is far from clear whether the results have
much relevance to the expected exposures humans will face. The
central fear is that an engineered particle that is widely used
could turn out to be like asbestos or PCBs and have serious
long-term health consequences that are recognized only after
thousands of people have suffered or large costs have been incurred.
In fact, some scientists claim that carbon nanotubes exhibit
properties similar to asbestos fibers at the nanoscale.
A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that:
“for now there is very little information and data on, or analysis
of, [environmental health and safety] impacts related to
nanotechnology” and that “the body of published research addressing
the toxicological and environmental effects of engineered nanomaterials is still relatively small.”26
As a result, there has been a widespread
call for more greater federal action to address possible health
concerns before they arise. Some researchers have called for
increasing the government’s power to regulate nanoproducts, arguing
that existing laws such as the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the
Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health
Act are inadequate to deal with potential problems.27
Others have called for significant
increases in research on the health effects of nanoparticles and a
beeter prioritization of federal spending.28
26 A Matter of Size: Triennial Review
of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, National Academy of
Sciences, Washington D.C. 2006, p. 78.
27 See, J. Clarence Davies, Managing
the Effects of Nanotechnology, Woodrow Wilson International Center
for Scholars, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Washington D.C.
28 See, Andrew D. Maynard, Nanotechnology: A Research Strategy for
Addressing Risk, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars,
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Washington D.C., July 2006.
A better understanding of how specific
particles affect human health would be enormously valuable. But
realizing this will not be as easy as many people would like. First,
much knowledge will have to wait for the development of better
equipment and facilities capable of measuring quantities and events
on such a small scale.
The National Academy of Sciences concluded
“[t]he ability to carry out
comprehensive EHS R&D requires that techniques and
instrumentation for characterization and measurement be
developed that will enable determination of the exact
composition of a nanomaterial in a substance or product, as well
as the physicochemical properties of specific nanomaterials.”29
Equipment to accurately measure and
observe events at the nanoscale is still relatively primitive
compared to where it is likely to be in 10-20 years. Second,
spending more money on research does not necessarily mean that the
research will be worth the money.
Proponents of additional spending are
right to point out that, given the relatively small amount currently
being spent, the marginal benefits from spending are likely to be
high, at least for the next few years. The National Academy of
Sciences recommended increasing research on the environmental,
health and safety effects of nanotechnology.30
Although the Academy did not cite a
figure, others have called for spending $50 million to $200 million
this would represent a large increase from the approximately $35
million that the NNI claims to devote to the area now, if properly
allocated through peer-reviewed grants by agencies such as the
National Science Foundation, such a sum should produce large
benefits for several reasons.
First, once the results are published
they will provide a good base for the private sector to build off of
in evaluating the safety of proposed products. Second, the studies
should further the knowledge of how engineered nanoproducts interact
with biological systems at the cellular level. In addition to making
it easier to avoid the production of harmful materials, this general
knowledge should make it easier to engineer nanomaterials that
accomplish beneficial health purposes. To a large extent, EHS
research is a natural complement to efforts to use nanotechnology to
combat diseases such as cancer.
But rapid increases in funding do not automatically guarantee rapid
increases in results. One important issue is the degree to which
agencies should pursue a central list of research priorities. At
present, although agencies coordinate through the NNI, each agency
retains full control over its own budget decisions and sets its own
priorities for research.
The National Academy of Sciences
“the NNI is successfully
establishing R&D programs with wider impact than could have been
expected from separate agency funding without coordination….The
committee believes that federal agencies have been motivated by
their participation in NNI activities to establish priorities,
coordinate programs, and leverage resources to a degree that has
proved very effective.”32
29 A Matter of Size: Triennial Review
of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, National Academy of
Sciences, 2006, p. 80.
30 Id. p. 92.
31 See, Andrew D. Maynard, Nanotechnology: A Research Strategy for
Addressing Risk, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars,
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, July 2006; Testimony of
Matthew M. Nordon, President, Lux Research Inc., September 21, 2006,
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science.
32 A Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology
Initiative, National Academy of Sciences, 2006, p. 6.
Although centralization might produce a
consistent list of priorities, it does not always produce the best
one. If centralization might steer funding toward important areas
that the agencies might normally view as being outside their narrow
areas of concern, it might also fail to fund some areas of research
that are central to an agency’s mission. Centralized priorities are
only as good as the process used to establish and implement them.
Given that the NNI is presently based
purely on collaboration, the best alternative would probably be to
give the NNI a significant portion of independent budgetary
authority that it could use to fund research in areas that fall in
between or overlap the interests of the separate agencies. An
independent budget would also give the NNI greater weight in guiding
the agencies toward consistent progress on developing a coordinated
nanotechnology policy but still leave the latter free to pursue
their own mandates.
It is also very clear that health research must be better
coordinated with the private sector and government agencies at the
state and international levels. Experiments done in one part of the
world have immediate relevance to all other areas and there is great
benefit in avoiding duplication and spreading research findings
widely. The benefits of coordinating research among domestic and
international laboratories are significant.
A final issue concerns the obligations that private companies should
face in ensuring the safety of the products they sell in the market.
In many cases, such as cosmetics, these products face very little
regulatory scrutiny prior to reaching consumers. The combined lack
of testing and oversight has led at least one organization to call
for a moratorium on the further commercial release of personal care
products that contain engineered nanomaterials and the withdrawal of
products currently on the market.33
33 Nanomaterials, Sunscreens, and
Cosmetics: Small Ingredients Big Risks, Friends of the Earth, May
The general issue of risk is discussed
in greater detail below. But one legitimate concern is a lack of
information on the amount and type of testing that testing companies
perform in order to ensure that their products are safe. Under
current law, companies are not required to disclose the results of
any safety testing and many companies consider such research
The debate on the safety of using nanotechnology would be improved
if three changes were made governing the use of nanotechnology in
products. First, the use of nanotechnology should be clearly labeled
on products so that consumers can make an informed choice about
whether to use a particular product. At present, manufacturers are
split on the marketing value of nanotechnology. Some tout it in
their advertising even if their product does not technically contain
nanoparticles, on the theory that consumers are attracted to new
Others, fearing a consumer backlash if
consumers develop a negative view of nanotechnology, omit any
mention of the word. Clearer labeling of exactly what ingredients
are used and of the particle size would give consumers accurate
information and reduce the possibility of a sudden backlash if there
is a problem with one or more specific products. Consumers ought to
have the ability to make independent judgments about whether to
purchase products with nanoparticles.
Second, private companies should be
required to disclose to the Food and Drug Administration the results
of any safety testing that they conduct and the FDA should
immediately publicize any results that show a clear negative health
effect. Companies would then probably find it in their interest to
publicize neutral or positive findings. Disclosure of test results
does have important strategic implications for companies that
compete for market share. But, since most safety testing will be
done by the private sector, members of the public should have the
right to see what steps companies are taking to protect their
health. This would also ensure that the debate over safety occurs in
public with full information.
While this might subject companies to
some discomfort in the short-term, it will make it much more
difficult for opponents of the technology to use public distrust to
exploit any negative stories. Congress could encourage additional
safety testing by making it easier for companies to collaborate on
precompetitive research into the environmental, health and safety
impact of nanomaterials. Additional efforts to identify the
environmental, health and safety risks of nanoparticles will bring
clear benefits. But the need to conduct these studies should not be
used to prevent the introduction of new products. Science and
technology have always involved a leap into the unknown, bringing
with it an assumption of unforeseen risks.
Opponents of technology can always point
to examples of innovation gone bad such as asbestosis, DDT,
But their analysis of this risk omits three important facts. First,
each of these products brought with them significant benefits which,
at least for a while, could not be duplicated by other products.
Indeed DDT has recently been re-approved for limited use to combat
malaria. Second, even if the total cost of these products outweighed
their benefits, the former were unnecessarily increased by a lack of
full disclosure about research into their health effects.
That is why an open debate about EHS
testing is so important. It allows society to improve the
cost/benefit equation of any given product. Third, and by far the
most important, any testing policy that significantly delayed the
use of these products might have also delayed the use of thousands
of other products that did not prove to pose significant health
risks. This would have had major impacts on economic growth and
consumer welfare. Any policy that tries to stop harmful products
from entering the market must try to do so without significantly
delaying the vast majority of products that bring net benefits.
One environmental group has made clear its position on
nanotechnology. It calls for a moratorium on all products containing
nanomaterials. In their words:
“We believe that ethical concerns
and the likely far-reaching socio-economic impacts of
nanotechnology, must be addressed alongside concerns over
nanotoxicity before the commercialization of nanotechnology
One of the many criteria that they
require to be met before nanomaterials can be commercially released
is that “safety assessments are based on the precautionary principle
and the onus is on proponents to prove safety, rather than relying
on an assumption of safety.34
34 Id., p. 17.
Rather than being an impartial look at
the possible health risks of using nanoparticles in cosmetic
products, the report is a biased swipe against a broad category of
consumer products. In the case of sunscreens there is no discussion
of the possible benefits that might occur if more people either use
more sunscreen or find its use more enjoyable because standard
ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide appear clear
rather than white at the nanoscale. This sort of possible benefit is
simply assumed not to be important.
Having established that the benefits are
zero, the report then looks at the risks. Here its discussion is
similarly one-sided. Although it cites the 2004 report of the Royal
Society at least 14 times, it never mentions the report’s discussion
of the regulatory approval for titanium dioxide. Nor does it point
out that the Royal Society specifically found that a moratorium on
nanotechnology was not justified. Of course, it is unclear how the
standard advocated by Friends of the Earth could ever be met. Few
products come with an absolute guarantee of safety for all portions
of the population.
Under this standard it would not be
enough if a product’s cost/benefit ratio was positive or even very
high. The question would be whether the product imposed any risks to
society at all. And if there was even the possibility of a risk (and
there would almost always be at least the possibility) then the
product could be rejected. Proponents of growth should always
remember that there is a certain section of the population that
argues against the introduction of peanuts because exposure can be
deadly to those with a strong allergic reaction to them. Similar
arguments can and will be made against nanotechnologies even when an
impartial cost/benefit evaluation shows that the technology will
probably bring net benefits to society.
The requirement to address “the far-reaching socio-economic impacts”
also imposes an almost insuperable barrier. First, many of these
impacts are unknowable because they depend on a variety of other
events in the future. Widely used technologies do not impact society
as single items. They combine to constitute a web of technology that
changes the entire social system. It is usually meaningless to pick
out one possible application of the technology and evaluate it apart
from all the complementary and competing technologies that affect
its impact on society.
Second, many of the most significant
impacts will occur because nanotechnology brings with it large
benefits and therefore becomes infused into a wide variety of
products in many industries. Most of those who are negatively
affected by it will be so because the technology opens up new
production, distribution and profit opportunities. They will quickly
use arguments against the technology to seek competitive protection.
There is a widespread desire to avoid repeating the mistakes of
biotechnology, a technology whose advance has been substantially
slowed by political opposition that has little scientific basis. But
it is not really clear what the mistakes of biotechnology are. No
human deaths can be attributed to genetically modified organisms.
Nor has any product of biotechnology ever resulted in significant
The potential health and environmental
benefits of biocrops in the form of reduced use of pesticides,
fertilizer, and fuel and improved vitamin delivery are totally
discounted in favor of vague warnings against Frankenfood. One might
wish that companies like Monsanto had been more open about their
research and intentions, but this research surely would have been
used against them by environmental groups who intentionally distort
the debate by exaggerating any dangers and denying any benefits. It
is far from certain that better studies and more open debate would
have produced a more reasoned policy.
Much of the reaction against nanotechnology is based solely on the
fact that even if it has benefits, these benefits will change
society in substantial ways. This is why opponents often mention the
need to look at “socio-economic effects”. Similar arguments are
being used today against the expansion of the Internet. Realtors
have argued that home searches done over the Internet are not really
the same as those done by a licensed professional and that the
industry therefore should not have to open up its listing services
to discount brokers.
Optometrists have argued that contact
lenses purchased over the Internet are not really as safe as those
that they sell and that therefore they should be allowed to write
prescriptions for brands that promise not to make their products
available to Web stores. Of course, in neither of these arguments is
there room for the consumer to determine what actually does or does
not benefit him. Rather, the strategy is for the incumbents to make
the decision for the individual. Had the development of the World
Wide Web waited for a full understanding of its “socioeconomic
effects” it would probably not exist today.
In this context it is worth discussing what role the public should
play in guiding the progress of nanotechnology. The NNI has defined
seven Program Component Areas under which it groups related projects
and activities. One of the Program Component Areas is devoted to the
societal dimensions of nanotechnology.
Within this category the NNI intends to
foster the following activities:35
Research on the environmental,
health and safety impacts of nanotechnology
Educational activities including
the development for materials for schools, technical
training and public outreach
Research on the broad
implications of nanotechnology, including social, economic,
ethical, and legal implications.
35 National Science and Technology
Council, The National Nanotechnology Initiative, Strategic Plan,
Washington D.C., December 2004. Available at:
This implies an intent to educate the
public about the benefits (or costs) and progress of nanotechnology.
Proponents of public education and EHS research frequently point to
biotechnology as a lesson of why such efforts are needed.
The belief is that after a very
promising start, progress in biotechnology has been slowed, and in
some cases even halted, due to a broad public reaction that is
Public health scares, although in
most cases these had nothing to do with biotechnology. A good
example is the damage caused by mad cow disease in England and
the rest of Europe. Government delay and deception in dealing
with this issue led to a significant decline in the public’s
confidence about the government’s commitment to safety
regulation, which opponents of biotechnology exploited.
The lack of outreach and openness on
the part of biotechnology companies such as Monsanto. These
companies took the lack of public opposition for granted and did
not respond rapidly to questions about the safety or economic
benefits of their products.
Lack of general public education
about either the science or the economic benefits of genetically
modified crops. This lack of knowledge provided little
perspective with which to judge conflicting health claims. Since
consumers did not know of any benefits biotechnology might
bring, they had little reason to miss them.
A determined opposition by some
environmental groups that were adamantly opposed to the use of
genetically modified crops under any conditions, regardless of
the science. These groups engaged in a determined campaign to
convince the public that biotechnology represents a grave threat
to the public health and the environment. They took legitimate
questions and expanded them into worst case scenarios and then
made those scenarios seem like a certainty if a complete ban was
not enforced. They often used violence to enforce their beliefs
and gain publicity for their cause.
It is hard to argue against public
education. The public should have a voice in how public money is
spent, and it should be an informed voice. Even within the NNI
budget, allocations between theoretical research, medical
applications, and EHS studies are subjects of legitimate debate.
But it is important to have a realistic view of what public
engagement can accomplish. As we go forward, an increasing
proportion of investment in nanotechnology will come from the
private sector. As a result, government will gradually lose much its
ability to shape the direction of in which the technology advances.
Decisions will increasingly be made by a
decentralized collection of international businesses, universities,
consumers and investors. Any attempt to subject these decisions to a
collective decision process in order to manage broad “socioeconomic
effects” is almost certain to do far more harm than good. But
because the harm from overly stringent regulation will come mainly
in the form of future beneficial technology that will be delayed or
stopped altogether, it may not be immediately apparent.
Government should, however, be involved
in monitoring technological developments, identifying any specific
environmental risks, holding manufacturers responsible for any harm
that their products do cause, and, where appropriate, implementing
carefully designed regulatory systems justified by careful
Nanotechnology must be allowed to proceed as other transforming
technologies such as chemistry, steam power, and electricity have
done. It must proceed at its own pace and in its own direction.
Better dialogue and research can help society deal with specific
problems as they become apparent. It can also address the inevitable
economic dislocation that will affect specific markets.
But policymakers should not fool
themselves into thinking that a collective political process can
guide the future any better than the market can. Regulations need to
be based on clear cost/benefit calculations supported by scientific
evidence. And regulations to address specific identified risks
should not delay the advancement of a broad range of products that
will surely bring large social and economic benefits.
The world in which our children live will surely be a different one.
Whether it is a better one is largely up to them to decide.
Continued technological advancement,
including on the nanoscale, will not automatically make the world
any fairer or safer, but it will increase the resources available to
those who want to ensure that it is.