Pacing Nanotechnology

July 9, 2007 - Washington, DC

From Chemical & Engineering News, July 9, 2007, vol. 85, no. 28, p. 3

by Ivan Amato, Managing Editor

THE NANOTECHNOLOGY MOVEMENT has engendered an eclectic community of historians, lawyers, communicators, educators, environmentalists, and others in the science, technology, and society (STS) community who prognosticate about nanotechnology’s societal implications.

A primary goal for this community is that the world will see more benefit than woe from nanotechnology. The ways they try to do this include developing educational programs about nanotechnology’s promises and potential risks and publishing recommendation-filled documents aimed at regulatory agencies such as EPA and FDA.

Last month, I attended two gatherings of this community. One of them, titled “Nanotechnology & Nature: Can We Reduce Any Risks & Still Reap the Rewards,” was a luncheon seminar at Resources for the Future (RFF) in Washington, D.C. The other, in Philadelphia at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), examined the roles social scientists might play in helping the public, businesses, and governments navigate the nanotechnology era. Each event offered a free lunch, yet I was fully prepared to be cynical about their value.

My predisposition to cynicism here has roots. In 1989, I attended one of the first nanotechnology meetings. It took place in Palo Alto, Calif., and was organized by a group headed by K. Eric Drexler, who then dominated the public characterization of nanotechnology. The meeting featured a fascinating mix of scientists’ breathless accounts of their early steps in precisely engaging matter at the nanoscale and presentations by white-knuckled observers already worried about the dystopian futures such control over nature could make possible. That mix proved to be a microcosm of the discourse that has followed since. . . .

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