Yesterday I testified before the House Committee on Science. Most members of the committee seemed genuinely interested in finding ways for the emerging field of nanotechnology to be adequately evaluated for its possible social and environmental consequences. Interactions between witnesses and committee members were usually cordial. I was the only witness to question the basic the rationale for supporting nanotechnology as compared to other national needs. The main suggestion I made for legislation was to include citizens panels as one method for technology assessment.
My web page has links to the testimony and an archived webcast of the hearing.
Here's a story from USA Today on the hearings.
USA Today, April 10, 2003
Experts: Research needed on nanotechnology consequences
By Susan Roth, Gannett News Service,
WASHINGTON — Congress should require research into the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology as the new field of science develops, experts told a House panel Wednesday.
The social and physical scientists said the march of nanotechnology — the manipulation of individual atoms — cannot be stalled because their peers around the world see it as the next major scientific revolution.
But they warned of dangers that should be considered as Congress weighs a measure that would create a $2.1 billion national research initiative on nanotechnology. The bill by House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-New Hartford, and Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., would allocate the spending over three years for research and development programs.
The Bush administration has proposed spending $849 million in fiscal 2004 on a National Nanotechnology Initiative involving 10 federal agencies. The Boehlert/Honda bill would spend $645 million in fiscal 2004 but more in the next two years. A similar bill has also been introduced in the Senate.
"The one thing we can be sure of is that nanotechnology will be neither the unalloyed boon predicted by technophiles nor the unmitigated disaster portrayed by technophobes," Boehlert said at the opening of Wednesday's Science Committee hearing.
The measure, which the committee expects to approve at the end of the month, would allow some funding for research on societal and ethical consequences of the science and require that research to be integrated with the physical science research.
Langdon Winner, a political science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., urged the panel to consider setting aside some money specifically for social
and ethical research and to ensure that the public is included early in the debate.
Winner and other speakers pointed to the current problems of the biotechnology industry with genetically modified organisms. "The European Union is now refusing to buy genetically modified foods because of a failure to have an open discussion at the start," Winner said. "Late in the process, it does very little good to tell them they're being irrational."
Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer in artificial intelligence and head of a software development firm near Boston, agreed. Kurzweil also pointed to the fact that while biotechnology still holds such promise for humanity, it can also empower bioterrorists.
Nanotechnology raises "a new type of safety concern," Kurzweil said, because the technology is so small that it can "get in our tissues, our bloodstream, our brains.... Most importantly, we need far greater resources for the defense of this technology," to protect it from those who would use it to do harm.