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Unintended Consequences

What Ten Years of the National Nanotechnology Initiative Can Teach Us About Federal R&D

Semiconductor nanocrystals, which emit different colors based on the size of the particles, as shown in the rainbow above, are useful for researching technologies ranging from fluorescent labels to novel light sources. SOURCE: Andrey Rogach Semiconductor nanocrystals, which emit different colors based on the size of the particles, as shown in the rainbow above, are useful for researching technologies ranging from fluorescent labels to novel light sources.

On January 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton addressed a standing-room only crowd at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium. He articulated the pressing need for the United States to strengthen its investment in science and technology. A “top priority” was a major increase in the federal funding for nanotechnology, which involves studying materials at the level of molecules and atoms. Clinton extolled the benefits of the proposed National Nanotechnology Initiative, or NNI, with a description straddling science fact and fiction:

Just imagine, materials with 10 times the strength of steel and only a fraction of the weight; shrinking all the information at the Library of Congress into a device the size of a sugar cube; detecting cancerous tumors that are only a few cells in size. Some of these research goals will take 20 or more years to achieve. But that is why…there is such a critical role for the federal government.

As the NNI enters its second decade, a broad appraisal of the federal investment in nanotechnology is called for. Rather than frame this is as a matter of success and failure, let’s consider the new issues and concerns that have arisen since 2000. The effects of large-scale R&D investment can unfold in surprising ways and the NNI is no different.

A few key lessons are clear. The NNI helped advance research on the process of innovation itself; it demonstrated the uncertain consequences of overselling the novelty of new technologies; and it expanded our understanding of the environmental consequences and social impacts of emerging technologies.

But first, some backstory. Original plans for the NNI aimed to direct some $495 million to expand research at the nanoscale. Eight agencies—the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, and the Departments of Commerce, Defense, Energy, Transportation, and Treasury—had representatives listed in early reports. The proposed return on this investment included broad areas of new research targeted for interagency funding and a national infrastructure with “centers of excellence” where nano-researchers would work with the stated goal of producing new discoveries to be “rapidly commercialized by industry.” The new initiative also aimed to “promote a new generation of skilled workers…necessary for rapid progress in nanotechnology.”

Clinton’s plan maintained broad bi-partisan support even after he left office. In 2003, Congress passed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, which authorized spending $3.7 billion over the next four years, $2.9 billion of which was actually appropriated. Overall, the U.S. investment in nanoscale R&D over the last decade is close to $12 billion (annual private sector investment worldwide is even greater, according to a 2008 Congressional Research Service report). A decade later, some 25 federal agencies are part of the NNI and 13 of these have their own nano R&D budgets. The President’s FY 2011 budget request for the NNI totals $1.76 billion spread across 14 agencies.

The NNI emerged at a salient point in United States history. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, economic competitiveness replaced the twilight military struggle of the Cold War, and science advocates could no longer claim national defense as the prime rationale for funding basic research. Lawmakers were still struggling to adapt national policies to the new global environment and to the implications of the increasing commercialization of science. Advocates of the NNI proposed it at a propitious time—between the end of the Cold War and a renewed preoccupation with national security after September 11, 2001—when lawmakers were trying to reshape national science and technology policy. It exists now in an economic and political climate vastly different from that when President Clinton stood at that podium in Pasadena in 2000.

Against this backdrop, we can consider several important and unexpected lessons learned from ten years of policy supporting nanotech research—lessons that are not specific to the tiny particles under consideration, but are important for science policymaking going forward in many fields.

Appreciating Innovation

When policymakers proposed the NNI, politicians expressed enthusiasm that it would make the United States more economically competitive. Forecasts, not from intemperate prognosticators but sober-minded science managers, predicted that the international market for nano-goods would be $1 trillion by 2015. The production of these goods, supporters said, would require a new high-tech (and highly paid) workforce of some two million people, potentially leading to a major restructuring of the global workforce.[1]

In 2000, no one of course could have predicted a decade that included the debilitating effects of a massive domestic terrorism incident, two major overseas conflicts, and the worst economic downturn since 1929. With unemployment drifting just under 10 percent and the global economy still in disarray, it would be churlish to ask “where are all the nano jobs?” So let’s look at it another way. The NNI was never just about “technology.” It was also a form of industrial policy, forming part of a hidden developmental state in which federal investment helps underwrite new commercial technologies. The NNI has also created a vast national research infrastructure for nanoscale R&D. Some of this infrastructure was built on institutions, practices, and organizations that pre-dated the NNI. In 1985, for example, the NSF started establishing Engineering Research Centers to coordinate academic research and industrial needs. After 2000, the NNI created dozens of new research facilities out of whole cloth. The end result is that there are now 60 major centers and facilities across the United States. This is analogous to NASA’s creation of national R&D network in the United States during the 1960s to support space-related research, but more extensive in scope and aims.

Just as noteworthy is the fact that the number of federal agencies that have joined the NNI has grown significantly since 2000. Also worth noting— many “nano and society” researchers have focused on understanding how innovation happens and how it moves out into the public sector, resulting in jobs, new businesses, and so forth. Researchers at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at University of California, Santa Barbara have considered both the historical and contemporary aspects of nanoscale innovation in both the U.S. and China. For example, in the 1990s, a basic physics discovery—giant magnetoresistance—made in European laboratories proved essential for American electronics firms such as IBM. Without this innovation, today’s ubiquitous memory-intensive devices such as iPods would not exist.[2]

Researchers have used a variety of means to understand this process. However, it is important not to focus simply on the numbers of patents, publications, or scientists trained, etc. While universities and funding agencies might like to think that innovation can be quantified so simply, focusing too much on one number can also have unintended (and undesirable) consequences. Innovation is an activity with historical, social, and economic dimensions and it must be studied in ways that reflect this so as to better understand and aid the process.

The Novelty of Nano?

The policymaker’s definition of nanotechnology—“understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications…imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter at this length scale”—belies the fact that a great deal of R&D that might seem “nano” now, existed for years, if not, decades, before the NNI. It had its own research communities, professional groups, conferences, and so on. Moreover, the United States wasn’t the first nation to have a national nanoscale research program. Efforts, smaller in scale, funding, and ambition, existed in Japan and the U.K, for instance, in the 1980s. This does by no means devalue the NNI, but it’s important to realize that it is a continuation of older, more established R&D programs in disciplines like materials science, physics, and chemistry. This is analogous to the idea that the microelectronics R&D community was already three decades old when the SEMATECH consortium, a government-industry partnership formed to foster greater competiveness, was formed in the mid-1980s.

Given nanotech’s long history, it isn’t surprising that most of the past decade’s scientific and technical accomplishments have been incremental and evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. The focus on newness (which policymakers, scientists, and the media all contributed to) can also have blowback, creating a “novelty trap” (to use Steve Rayner’s term) of unrealistic expectations and heightened concerns on the public’s part.

The lesson here is three-fold. One is that the public has come to expect continuing technological “revolution,” an expectation that belies the actual nature of technological change, which is often incremental rather than revolutionary. Also, the dominant focus on newness elides the fact that a great deal of innovation doesn’t come from the realm of inventions and patents but from use (a point made in David Edgerton’s book The Shock of the Old). Finally, policymakers should be more wary of the “innovation trap” in which a new technology is promoted as a panacea for current problems (i.e. here, geoengineering or synthetic biology could join nanotechnology) without consideration of new problems or drawbacks that may accompany it.

Environmental Issues

When scientists and policymakers were building the foundation for the NNI in 1998 and 1999, they paid attention to the environmental issues involved. But the focus was primarily on how nanotechnology could help improve the environment with cleaner water and more efficient energy use. However, by the time the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology did its first review of the NNI in 2005, new issues and concerns had cropped up.

Within a fairly short span of time, policymakers began to ask if the government was adequately addressing the potential environmental or health risks that might accompany the scientific advances the NNI was underwriting. Environmental groups issued a variety reports on nanotech expressing optimistic caution (Greenpeace) or proposing an outright moratorium on research (the ETC Group). In 2005, the Woodrow Wilson Center launched its Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies to “ensure that as nanotechnologies advance, possible risks are minimized” and national media coverage started to frame nanotech R&D as a matter of environmental risks versus economic benefits. Research dollars followed these concerns—in 2008, the NSF funded two major new national centers to consider the environmental implications of nanotechnologies.

Again, this is not a negative outcome—attention to potential implications reflects a positive example of trying to apply anticipatory governance to emerging technologies. But this was an unexpected change from what scientists and policymakers were most focused on a decade earlier. Moreover, scientific research on environmental and health issues has been more than simply “defensive” as one might have expected. Policymakers and scientists alike should be pleased that these studies have produced broader knowledge of the overall interactions between, for example, carbon nanotubes and biological systems. This new knowledge in turn could produce desired yet unexpected outcomes such as commercial innovations.

Studying (Nano)technology and Society

The NNI moved early to integrate the study of “ethical, legal…and other appropriate societal concerns” into its framework. The NSF funded two national centers to study these implications (one at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the another at Arizona State) and all of the NSF’s “Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers” have some sort of “nano and society” component. Nano, of course, was not the first major national technology endeavor to propose studying societal, ethical, or legal implications.

In the 1960s, NASA spent millions to study the social and economic effects of the space program, giving rise to the agency’s “technological spinoff” reports. And, in the 1990s, the Human Genome Project established its Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications, or ELSI, program. The NNI’s approach to the question of social implications has been different and, I believe, more innovative. Rather than having researchers study societal questions from the margins, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and economists were integrated into the nano-enterprise early on. In many cases, they have worked in close proximity with bench scientists and engineers, helping demonstrate to those groups to how “we” do our research. The idea of considering the societal implications in concert with the actual R&D is far-sighted and original. When successful, such efforts have encouraged scientists and engineers to consider the societal implications of their research from the outset.

At UC Santa Barbara, for example, we have a long-standing program that recruits graduate students from the sciences and engineering disciplines and engages them in actual social science research. As a result, they return to their labs with a sense that doing good research means not just good bench science but also taking into consideration the social, environmental, and economic implications of their work.

These interactions have the potential to change the ways in which these experts communicate with various publics about science and, at the same time, can help scientists formulate a better understanding of the ordinary citizen’s perception of risks and benefits. Another unexpected outcome is that a growing international and interdisciplinary community of experts has formed with its own conferences and other scholarly apparatuses. This body of experts, many of them starting their careers, will be primed to address the implications inherent in future new technologies.

W. Patrick McCray is a professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a researcher and former co-director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at UCSB. He is also a member of the Science Progress advisory board. This article is based upon research supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. SES 0531184. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


[1] M.C. Roco, “International Strategy for Nanotechnology Research and Development,” Journal of Nanoparticle Research (2001) 3, 5-6: 353-60; “Will Small Be Beautiful? Making Policies for Our Nanotech Future,” History and Technology (2005) 21, 2: 177-203.

[2] W. Patrick McCray, “From Lab to iPod: A Story of Discovery and Commercialization in the Post-Cold War Era,” Technology and Culture (2009) 50, 1: 58-81.

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