Foresight Update 45

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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NSET Report Examines Impacts of Nanotechnology

In a sign that national policy-makers are beginning to devote serious attention to the potential impacts of nanotechnology, the U.S. National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology (NSET) has released a 280-page report detailing the presentations from a workshop on the Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, which was held at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., 28-29 September 2000. NSET is the coordinating body for the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The NSET report is just one of a number of recent private and public sector reports that are examining nanotechnology in a broader context.

The workshop brought together nanotechnology researchers, social scientists, and policy makers representing academia, government, and the private sector to survey current studies on the societal implications of nanotechnology (educational, technological, economic, medical, environmental, ethical, legal, etc.); identify investigative and assessment methods for future studies of societal implications; and propose a vision for accomplishing nanotechnology's promise while minimizing undesirable consequences.

After an Introduction, Chapters 2 through 5 present the conclusions and recommendations from the workshop. The workshop report includes a comparative survey of the current studies on societal implications (knowledge and education, technological, economic, medical, environmental, cultural, ethical, legal, risks, etc.) of advances in nanoscience and nanotechnology, as well as an examination of vision and alternative pathways for the future over short (3-5 years), medium (5-15 years) and long-term (over 20 years) horizons. The report also makes recommendations for research and education programs. The bulk of the report, however, is in Chapter 6, which includes statements from the workshop participants. These statements and comments came from a diverse array of differing viewpoints about what nanotechnology is, and what the near- and long-term impacts may be.

In particular, there appears to be a high level of confusion and misunderstanding about self replicating systems, even among technical experts. While a few assumed that artificial self replicating systems were feasible, it is apparent in the comments many participants had not realized that "living" and "self replicating" are two distinct and very different concepts. Many of the individual comments included (unspecified) claims that artificial replicating systems were impossible.

The authors of the report emphasize that the study of the societal implications of nanotechnology must be an integral part of the NNI. They also note: "As the NNI is commencing, there is a rare opportunity to integrate the societal studies and dialogues from the very beginning and to include societal studies as a core part of the NNI investment strategy." [emphasis in original] They further note that research on societal implications will boost the chances for NNI's success and help the U.S. take advantage of new technology sooner, better, and with greater confidence. In particular, the report states that "sober, technically competent research on the interactions between nanotechnology and society will help mute speculative hype and dispel some of the unfounded fears that sometimes accompany dramatic advances in scientific understanding."

The workshop participants offered recommendations to: (a) accelerate the beneficial use of nanotechnology while diminishing the risks, (b) improve research and education, and (c) guide the contributions of key organizations. These recommendations, summarized below, serve as a basis for both the NNI participants and the public to begin addressing societal issues of nanotechnology:

Over the next 10 to 20 years, the authors conclude, nanotechnology will fundamentally transform science, technology, and society. However, to take full advantage of opportunities, the entire scientific and technology community must set broad goals; creatively envision the possibilities for meeting societal needs; and involve all participants, including the general public, in exploiting them.


The full "Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology" report is available on the web as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file (2.5 MB).

In addition, an interesting commentary ("Get Ready for Your Nano Future", by Alan Leo, 4 May 2001) on the NSET report appeared on the Technology Review website. As the article's subtitle indicates, "We know that nanotech will change the world — it's time to think about how." The article says the report indicates "The most significant implications may be unforeseen, and unforeseeable." The key lesson, according to Mihail Roco, the National Science Foundation's senior advisor for nanotechnology, "is to involve the public early in the process — before nanotech's effects are felt."

"We look to the people who are raising [concerns] to address the issues sooner," Roco says. "History shows that all breakthroughs in science and technology have brought societal changes and, sometimes, societal fears. But nobody should think about stopping research and development in this field [just] because there could be some risks."

Additional coverage and discussion of the NSET Societal Implications report can be found on nanodot at:

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Foresight Update 45 - Table of Contents


New York Advances State Nanotech Programs

Rensselaer Polytech also establishes nanotech center

New York Governor George E. Pataki and IBM senior vice president John E. Kelly III announced on 23 April 2001 more than $150 million in combined state and private sector support for the New York State Center of Excellence in Nanoelectronics at the University at Albany. Fifty million dollars will come from New York State while IBM will contribute $100 million.

Gov. Pataki said the center is expected to initially employ 100 technicians and 400 scientists. The center will create the only university-based, 300-millimeter computer wafer prototype facility in the world, and provide laboratory and clean room space for researchers, incubator space for high-tech company spinoff ventures and a work force development program, officials said.

Research in nano- and microtechnology, integrated electronic systems, photonics, biomedical electronics, and other cutting edge areas, as well as economic, and workforce development that will be undertaken at Albany are considered especially critical in light of IBM plans to build a $2.5 billion computer chip fabrication plant in East Fishkill, located south of Albany. Albany NanoTech's programs will provide infrastructure and the skilled workforce required for New York high tech industry.

New York State's $50 million commitment to the Albany Center of Excellence in Nanoelectronics is one of the largest investments of its kind ever made by the state. New York is engaged in a number of efforts to foster nanotechnology-related research and development there. The Center is a key component of the $1 billion New York State high tech initiative proposed by Gov. Pataki in January in his 2001 state of the state address. (see article in Foresight Update #44). Pataki has been pursuing the concept of centers of excellence as a means of capturing high-tech jobs for New York state. The centers bring together public and private funds at university settings. The program is somewhat similar to California's Institutes for Science and Innovation, which includes the California NanoSystems Institute (see article in Foresight Update #43).

Gov. Pataki's Centers of Excellence plan anticipates leveraging $3 of industry, federal, university and other funds for every $1 of State investment. In total, the $283 million State investment in Centers of Excellence should generate at least $700 million in industry, federal, university and other support over the next five years. The Center of Excellence in Nanoelectronics at UN Albany will leverage the significant industry and State support to attract millions in federal and other funds, for a more than $200 million total project value over the next five years.

In addition to the major funding partnership with IBM, the University of Albany is moving forward with additional programs to establish itself as a major nanotechnology research and development center. The University of Albany is establishing a School of Nanosciences and Materials to prepare students for high-tech jobs in nanotechnology. The school will offer cross-disciplinary doctoral and master's degree programs. According to a report in the Capital District Business Review from 16 April 2001, Alain Kaloyeros, executive director of the university's Institute for Materials who will be the new school's founding dean, said in a prepared statement that nanotechnology "combines the basic principals of chemistry, physics, biology and engineering to develop the knowledge for controlling and manipulating individual atoms to yield materials, devices and systems." A more extensive report appeared in the Albany Times Union on 14 April 2001.

An article by Kaloyeros in the March 2001 issue of Semiconductor Magazine ("Big Plans for the Tiny World Of NanoTechnology: University, industry and government cooperate in new technology model") provides an in-depth look at the partnership between academia, industry and government that is creating a major nanotechnology research and development center in New York.

More information on the nanotechnology-related programs at SUNY Albany can be found on the web at:

Elsewhere in New York, on 28 March 2001, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York announced the creation of the Center for Nanotechnology Research. According to a press release, research areas of the Center will include advanced materials and coatings, biosciences and biotechnology, nanoelectronics, microelectronics, and nanosystems. In addition, a new research effort on potential socioeconomic impacts will be initiated to understand the impact of nanotechnology on industry and society. The release states the Center already has federal funding in excess of $1 million per year and will be seeking additional support from a variety of government agencies with a strong interest in both basic and applied research topics. Rensselaer will provide matching funds in support of these programs, and expects to partner with other universities on a national scale to develop critical research teams and facilitate the dissemination of results.

In a related item, in February RPI and Zyvex Corporation formed a two-year collaboration designed to develop new microsystems capabilities. Under that agreement, Zyvex and RPI will explore MEMS assembly and packaging technologies through the cooperation of Zyvex's and RPI's research and development facilities (see Foresight Update #44).

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From Foresight Update 45, originally published 30 June 2001.