According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) plans to form a new interagency group on emerging technologies, including nanotechnology and synthetic biology.
Unfortunately I wasn’t at the workshop in Washington DC where Kalil made his remarks, and so don’t know any more about this than was included in the brief note from AAAS. However, from what was reported, this seems a sensible move – if carried through thoughtfully.
Nanotechnology – arguably the US government’s flagship emerging technology – has highlighted the need for smart policy decisions when developing new technologies. What started as a science-based initiative to promote new research, stimulate innovation and create new jobs, has increasingly become entangled in the social, political and economic impacts of science and technology promotion.
Ten years after President Clinton established the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) – the initiative that coordinates nanotechnology activities across federal agencies – there remains an uneasy relationship between the desire to drive science discovery and technology innovation, and the need to understand and manage the potential safety, societal and economic impacts of this push.
At the heart of this uneasy relationship is a built-in resistance to asking “un-askable” questions.
The NNI’s vision is “a future in which the ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale leads to a revolution in technology and industry that benefits society.” The vision is built on a belief that increasing our ability to control matter at the nanoscale is essential, that this will lead to a technology revolution, and that this revolution will benefit society.
This is a powerful driver, and has contributed largely to the success of the NNI specifically and nanotechnology more broadly. But it does mean that people who ask difficult questions tend to be tarred by a brush that’s reserved for whistle blowers and inconvenient activists.
This has been seen in the slow and sometimes reluctant inclusion of research into potential health and environmental impacts under the NNI umbrella; a resistance to developing government-wide policies on developing nanotechnology responsibly (a resistance usually justified by the NNI being a science initiative, not a policy initiative); and negligible efforts to include citizens who stand to gain or loose from nanotechnology as partners in the process (see David Guston’s piece on this for instance).
There has also been a surprising lack of analysis of the broader economic impacts of nanotechnology promotion – as opposed to the economic benefits. How many companies and economies have invested in nanotechnology simply because the US set an aggressive lead – and what has been the economic impact of this “follow the leader” mentality?
The reality is that in any initiative dedicated to promoting a given technology, people and organizations that raise issues and recommend actions that threaten to undermine this promotion risk being marginalized. And this ends up playing into personal and agency self-interest – why give up a position of influence and the promise of funding for the sake of asking difficult questions?
I can only imagine what the response to a NNI member who suggested the usefulness of the initiative should be re-examined would be – I suspect it would not be pretty! Yet if sound and strategic policies are to be developed that benefit citizens, the “un-askable” questions are often the most important ones.
Looking forward, there is a need to develop emerging technology-related policies that are balanced by considerations other than technology promotion. alone But on top of this, there is a need to develop more holistic approaches to emerging technologies in general.
Nanotechnology is not the only new technology on the block – technologies emerging under the banners of synthetic biology, robotics, geoengineering, cognitive enhancement, and a plethora of others are coming up fast. Then there are the gray areas between these where convergence leads to increasingly complex and ill-defined technologies. In the face of accelerating innovation, should policies be developed for each and every new technology that comes along? This would be exceedingly difficult to achieve now, and an impossible task I suspect a few years down the line.
One solution – and the one the White House seems to be pursuing – is to take a high-level approach to emerging technology policy that ensures cross-agency coordination, identifies emerging hot-spots and enables a balanced and socially-responsible approach to emerging opportunities and issues. In some ways this is a role that the long-defunct Office of Technology Assessment within the US Congress played. But looking to an increasingly technologically-complex future, I suspect that a complete rethink of how to ensure the benefits of new technologies are realized and the dangers avoided is needed.
Depending on how it develops, the new White House interagency group could well lead to coordinated action on emerging technologies that ensures policies are responsive to the needs of citizens – not just those who have a vested interest in technology promotion. But I can guarantee it will hit resistance from agencies, organizations and individuals who stand to loose out from this move – including those who stand to lose funding or influence as a result of it.
Yet if the US government is to embrace technology development that benefits society as a whole – especially in light of President Obama’s Innovation Strategy – it surely must create a policy forum where the “un-askable” questions can be asked; where no one interest group within the government can dominate proceedings; and where hurdles to social and economic prosperity can be identified, assessed and addressed without fear of agencies and individuals being marginalized.
Done right, this could be a critical step toward the US developing a 21st century approach to 21st century technologies.