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Money, blogs, debate, lots of nano-noise and news

by Judy Conner

Dear Readers: Since my last column there has been a lot of activity in the media concerning nanotechnology; $3.7 billion of US federal funds are slated for nanotechnology research, Drs. Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley's ongoing debate about MNT went public with the associated coverage, and the increasing influence of blogs in disseminating news.

$3.7 Billion is a big number

On December 3, 2003 President Bush signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act. The $3.7 billion appropriation of this act will be divided among eight government agencies: National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Justice (DOJ), Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Department of Agriculture (DOA).

There seemed to be two types of analysis in the media in response to this act.

1. Where does this infusion of dollars stack the United States in the global nanotech race, and who is going to get this funding?

In the November 28, 2003 issue of Silicon Valley Biz Ink an article by Rhonda Ascierto titled "Nanotech bill means big money for small science" it is pointed out that much of this money will be spent in the education realm for specialized facilities, equipment and employees.

Andy Watson, vice president of Hayward-based Quantum Dot Corporation, is quoted as saying "Typically a lot of the early nanotech work is done at universities that really can't commercialize these technologies. We can take these projects out of the lab and into the market."

In the December 5, 2003 issue of the Silicon Valley Biz Ink, Mark Thomas of Fremont said in a letter to the editor.

"I wish the $3.7 billion National Nanotechnology Program were good news for small biz, but the truth of the matter is this is an extension of corporate welfare by IBM and others squeezing even harder the small guy from bringing new tech to market. Taiwan is spending $30 billion (on nanotech). Just a little island that sees the future."

2. These funds are not going to be used to support long-term molecular nanotechnology (MNT) research efforts.

In the December 2, 2003 web posting of US News & Report, James M. Pethokoukis wrote, in an article titled "The government says 'no' to federally funded nanobots."

"Perhaps most interesting, though, is what the bill apparently does not fund: research into so-called molecular nanotechnology, a theoretical approach to nanotech that proposes the creation of 'molecular assemblers,' which could build complex products from molecular level up.

"The bill does allow a 'one-time study to determine the technical feasibility of molecular self-assembly for the manufacture of materials and devices at the molecular scale.' But self-assembly is not the same as self-replication, with the former being a proven chemical process being developed in nanotech labs. The original House version of the bill did contain an explicit passage that unmistakably referred to Drexlerian molecular manufacturing, including use of the phrase 'self-replication.' It appears that in substituting the word 'assembly' for 'replication,' some savvy bill writer performed a bit of legislative jujitsu to leave Drexler's approach out in the cold."

MNT debate and fence sitting

The MNT debate between Drs. Richard Smalley and K. Eric Drexler was featured in the December 1, 2003, Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), the leading weekly publication for chemists published by the American Chemical Society.

In her column, C&EN editor-in chief Madeline Jacobs mentions "One of our advisors suggested that we tackle controversial topics by finding people on opposing sides of the argument and presenting the exchange between them for C&EN readers."
The publication certainly accomplished what it planned with this Point/Counterpoint column. The debate was lively, maybe too personal on both sides, but it certainly invigorated the MNT discussion.

In the debate, Dr. Smalley dropped his previous insistence that MNT would required "magic fingers," but then said it would require enzymes and therefore water as a solvent. As pointed out on the webpages below, this is incorrect—enzymes have long been known to operate outside water or even in the vapor phase.

It is now common for nanotechnology trackers, supporters and researchers to think about MNT and where this technology will go. There is a lot of fence sitting, and too many "nanobot" references, but this important debate should be continued and kept alive.

TNT Weekly, a free Enewsletter distributed by Cientifica covered the debate in the December 9, 2003 issue. This Enewsletter is a round up of what's happening in the world of nanotechnology.

"As a result, many people have probably become newly aware of MNT and the fact that it is an area not without its controversies, around, for example, its very feasibility or around whether some of the claims of its capabilities and dangers are merely futuristic or outright fantasy.

"So it seems rather timely to finally have the father of MNT, K. Eric Drexler, and arch-sceptic Richard E. Smalley battling it out in public. The debate, however, is not very satisfactory. It is unlikely to have much impact on the opinions of anyone who hasn't already taken sides. But it wasn't a complete waste of e-space, we feel. The fat fingers and sticky fingers objections to MNT appear to be consigned to history, although not without more analogies slipping in—chemistry, it appears, is like boys and girls falling in love. This does at least fit with the frequently heard assertion that falling in love is all a matter of chemistry."

The fence sitting is best illustrated in an article, "Yes, They Can! No, They Can't: Charges Flying Nanobot Debate," in the New York Times, December 9, 2003 issue, by Kenneth Chang.

The debate has caught widespread attention among nanotechnology researchers, although it does not appear to have swayed many opinions.

"I think Smalley is right," said Dr. H. Kumar Wickramasinghe of IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY. "He's saying, 'Show me the chemistry.' No one has seen it." But Dr. Wickramasinghe added, "I would think it would be a hard thing to say it's impossible."

Blogs are changing how media works

Three years ago, I heard Dan Gillmor, a San Jose Mercury News columnist and Foresight Institute Senior Associate, speak about blogs and how they are transforming the dissemination of news and opinions. He is currently writing a book, Making the news; what happens to journalist and society when every reader can be a writer.

One of the more important points made by Gillmor is that news is becoming more interactive with the advent of blogs. It is no longer a one-way communication model.
This recently held true with the coverage of the MNT debate in two leading blogs.

, a leading blog which tracks nanotechnology among other things, is written by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee and member of the Foresight Board of Directors. He writes various law review articles, opeds, and other essays on technology and freedom. On December 8, 2003 commented on the MNT debate.

"Tomorrow's New York Times has a story on the Drexler/Smalley nanotechnology debate, but the story seems to treat the debate as being solely about nanobots, which I think is an overly narrow conception. You can have molecular manufacturing without nanobots, and you can have nanobots without them doing molecular manufacturing, but it's the molecular manufacturing that's the biggest deal.

"In addition, there's not a lot of context here. Two key items are (1) the new legislation is aiming a lot of funding at nanotechnology on the strength of the capabilities that molecular manufacturing, not just better transistors or materials, can offer; and (2) the rather obvious efforts by the nanotech business people to try to avoid the safety debate by insisting that all the really spooky stuff is impossible, anyway."

Another blog with increasing influence is Howard Lovy's NanoBot blog, which has proven to be an interactive venue for the MNT debate and location of somewhat irreverent comments as well. Lovy is also News Editor at the equally influential Small Times magazine, but the content is quite different. Lovy probably defines this best on a December 7, 2003 blog posting.

"Despite the fact that my blogwork of late has not exactly endeared me to the nanobusiness elite, my publisher has nonetheless asked that I blog Nanocommerce 2003 in Chicago this week. The event (held December 8-11, 2003), sponsored by Small Times Media and Infocast, is going to focus on near-term products and prospects for nanotech. I'm really looking forward to this one, since this group represents the other end of the nano spectrum from the long-range thinkers at the Foresight Institute, whose conference I attended in October.

"I'm not just sucking up to my boss here, but I really do have to admire the strong journalistic ethics of Steve Crosby, my publisher, who has never wavered in his support for this blog side-project of mine, no matter whose feathers I have ruffled along the way. I've read stories of other editors or publishers who have forced bloggers on their staffs to shut down, or worse. Thanks, Steve.

"Now, assuming I can manage to scrape off enough of the tar and feathers, I'll write later from Chicago." Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy's NanoBot Dec. 1, 2003 coverage of the Drexler/Smalley debate in C&EN: Clash of the Nanotech Titans Jurvetson named 2003 Advocate of the Year, attends bill signing with Von Ehr

Senior Associate Steve Jurvetson, a leading venture capitalist in nanotechnology and favorite speaker at Foresight conferences, has been named 2003 Advocate of the Year by Small Times magazine: "he is nevertheless one of a small group of VCs happy to associate with the sector's most far-thinking members. He is hardly averse to being quoted speaking of nanobots floating in human bloodstreams and other scenarios considered way too long-term for VC involvement." Steve's vision shows in his proposal for the NNI Grand Challenge: "Whether conceptualized as a universal assembler, a nanoforge, or a matter compiler, I think the 'moon-shot' goal for 2025 should be the realization of the digital control of matter, and all of the ancillary industries, capabilities, and learning that would engender."

Steve, who first met Foresight chair Eric Drexler when taking his nanotech class at Stanford, was present at the White House for the nanotech bill signing ceremony (see In the photo, Steve is fourth from the left; Senior Associate Jim Von Ehr, cofounder of the Foresight Institute Feynman Grand Prize and CEO of Zyvex, is second from right.

Judy Conner is the Public Service Communications Manager at Foresight Institute. She can be reached at

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