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September 7, 2004

A public radio commentary

With nanotechnology engineers manipulate atomic sized particles to create tiny machines. They'll be able to create, for example, toothpaste filled with nano-particles that repair damaged teeth, or pills that are really tiny pacemakers. Although still a young technology, the National Science Foundation forecasts the U.S. Market will be one trillion dollars by 2016.

Yet this promise may never be fulfilled, but not for lack of technological know how or resources: The U.S. Government alone will pour 3.7 billion dollars into nanotech over the next four year. But to really thrive a technology needs more than a scientific side, it must fit into our world socially and legally. For nanotech storm clouds already loom on the horizon.

For example, Britain's Prince Charles suggested that nanotechnology could be a disaster like thalidomide - the drug that caused grotesque birth defects in the 1960s. His remarks signal to the nanotech community the work yet to be done in creating a public receptive to their technology.

I suggest they look carefully at two negative role models: Biotechnology and nuclear power. Nether industry conveyed to the public the benefit of their product, nor did they listen to public concerns. In the absence of intelligent dialogue, heightened concerns grew over the risk, nearly crippling both industries. Better public engagement could have prevented this backlash. The public isn't going to accept any technology where there hasn't been detailed studies of risks and benefits.

Right now the lack of information about nanotechnology invites alarmist scenarios. The nanotech industry needs to educate the public about what exactly nanotechnology is, and it needs to listen carefully to public concerns.

And there are other ways nanotech needs to fit into our world before being fully accepted - consider legal and regulatory aspects. The EPA is deciding whether to regulate nano-materials under the Toxic Substances Control Act, or to classify them as the naturally occurring "ultra-fine" materials - the same as dust, forest fire smoke, volcanic ash, bacteria and viruses.

And Patent Examiners are grappling with nanotech. If you use nano methods to make a tiny motor is that legally any different than a full-sized motor? In the past a simple change in size hasn't been patentable absent some other utility or novelty that comes from miniaturization.

To researchers who enjoy conquering the technological problems of creating a nanotech world, these social, legal and regulatory concerns may seem like dull things. Yet, some fraction of the nearly four billion dollars being invested into nanotechnology needs to be used to answer these questions. If not then these tiny nano-sized machines will bite back big time.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises