"Wired" Magazine Column by Professor Lawrence Lessig Discusses How Politics Threaten the Future of Nanotechnology
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Stamping Out Good Science
By Lawrence Lessig
Should science tell the truth? You'd think that question would need no answer. But in the vortex known as Washington, DC, the obvious too often gets bent.
Consider the debate raging through the fledgling field of nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter at the atomic level. Nanotech was born in 1959 with a speculation at Caltech by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman that tiny things could be engineered to build big things; manufacturing, Feynman hinted, could be molecular. In 1986, Eric Drexler turned that speculation into a book, Engines of Creation, and then six years later, an MIT dissertation. Researchers began to consider what could be made if tiny machines were doing the making, and soon nanotech became the next great thing. (Full disclosure: I'm an unpaid advisory board member of the Foresight Institute, a nanotech educational nonprofit cofounded by Drexler.) In January 2000, Bill Clinton went to Caltech to launch the National Nanotechnology Initiative - a promise of billions from the federal treasury to find ways to make nanofleas dance.
Three months later, however, Bill Joy poured a bit of terror on Feynman's idea. In an article published in these pages ("Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," Wired 8.04) Joy linked nanotech with other sciences that scientists shouldn't pursue. A hypothetical self-replicating substance called gray goo, Joy warned, and nanobots (atom-sized machines that could assemble molecules) would be too much for society to manage. He concluded that we must "limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge."
Suddenly, nanotech replaced Y2K as the nightmare du jour. And this in turn inspired some scientists, hoping for funding, to push a very different approach - not the bottom-up vision of molecules manufacturing things, but a top-down system of human-controlled machines making ever smaller stuff. There was lots that could be done without nanobots. Buckyballs, nano-building blocks, had already been discovered; nanoscale computer chips were just on the horizon. The billions that Clinton had offered could be put to good use, scientists promised. There was really no need for scientists "to scare our children," Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard Smalley scolded, with talk about self-replicating monsters.
Then things turned really ugly. For it wasn't enough for some to argue against building tiny assemblers. The world of federal funding would only be safe, critics believed, if the idea of bottom-up nanotech could be erased. Molecular manufacturing, Smalley asserted, was "just a dream," and "simple facts of nature [would] prevent it from ever becoming a reality." In an ideal world, such scientific controversy would be settled by science. But not this time: Without public debate, funding for such "fantasy" was cut from the NNI-authorizing statute. Thanks to Senator John McCain, not a single research proposal for molecular manufacturing is eligible for federal dollars.
But as Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, later told me, it's hard to call molecular manufacturing "impossible" when it's precisely what living cells do every moment of the day. It may be hugely complex, he said, and as all agree, it is certainly years away. "But I would hesitate," this sensible administrator admitted, "to call it impossible."
So why do some scientists say it can't be done? As the editors of Chemical & Engineering News put it, Smalley's "objections go beyond the scientific." They are a strategy - if so-called dangerous nanotech can be relegated to summer sci-fi movies and forgotten after Labor Day, then serious work can continue, supported by billion-dollar funding and uninhibited by the idiocy that buries, for example, stem cell research.
Given the politics of science, this strategy is understandable. Yet it is a strategy inspired not by the laws of nature but by the perverse nature of how we make laws. We are cowards in the face of Bill Joy's nightmare. We dissemble rather than reason, because we can't imagine rational government policy addressing these reasonable fears.
It is this that we should fear more than any nightmare Bill Joy might imagine. While scientists scheme to direct molecules to build things and invent tricks to make atoms dance, few can imagine an innovation in government policy regarding dangerous science. Science thus becomes irrational because we can't imagine government as rational. Simple facts of a political nature, we might say, tweaking and reusing Smalley's warning in a much more depressing context, prevent good science from ever becoming a reality.
Email Lawrence Lessig at firstname.lastname@example.org.