Nanotechnology patents delayed, nanotech public understanding mixed

We don’t usually like to link to subscription sites, but as an editorial advisory board member, I’ll make an exception for Nanotech Briefs (you can download a free sample). The August issue has the usual hard-core technical news: SiGe transistor operates at frequencies above 500 GHz, Method creates hollow nanocrystals, nanopore technique sequences DNA [note: despite the headline, this is a computer model, not a physical experimental result, though it sounds as though the latter may be getting close], Bacterial detection using quantum dot nanocomplexes, Miniature airborne-particle-mass monitors, Dot-in-well quantum dot photodetectors.

On the topic of nanotech intellectual property, the issue cites a recent report from Lux Research and Foley & Lardner, commenting:

The report finds that the rate of new nanotech patent issuances stalled at 4% in 2005 after exceeding 20% in the last few years. At the same time, however, the number of public patent applications for nanotechnology continued to increase, growing by 52% to 2,714 outstanding nanotech patent applications. According to the report, these figures indicate that a bottleneck at the USPTO is limiting inventors’ ability to secure intellectual property rights.

Regardless of how one feels about nanotech patents, having applications pile up at the USPTO indicates a misallocation of resources somewhere. This problem seems likely to increase as the complexity of both the nano patent landscape and nano patents themselves increase.

Meanwhile, an article on managing investment expectations includes some discussion of public understanding of nano:

Ronald Sandler, assistant professor of philosophy at Boston’s Northeastern University, has tracked several studies on public perceptions of nanotechnology and addresses the level of understanding for the field. “Does the public understand the technical and scientific aspects of nanotechnology? The data on this so far is that the public largely does not,” reported professor Sandler. “Second, does the public understand that nanotechnology is likely to be the platform for the next revolution in technology and industry and therefore have significant social impacts? The data on this so far is that the public largely does. Third, does the public understand nanotechnology well enough to formulate fact-based, well-grounded views about nanotechnology and participate in productive discussions about what nanotechnology’s impacts may be, what the economic, social, ethical, and environmental issues associated with them are, and how those might be addressed? The answer to this, I believe, is ‘not yet.’ ”

Dr. Sandler is an ethics researcher whose work on nanotechnology is funded by NSF. The first and last of his three questions above may be asking too much of “the public” in general. It’s great that they appear to understand the revolutionary nature of (presumably long-term) nanotech and that it will have significant impacts — and I think Foresight can take some credit for that — but only a very small subset of the public will be willing to dig in to the policy issues, as is the case for technology policy issues in general. —Christine

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