[Updated to remove personal references]
How do you tell if your billion-dollar research program will contribute to developing molecular manufacturing (MM)?
The broad goal of MM is to build lots of innovative stuff at the nanoscale and make it do what you want, right? And since a specific proposal for how to develop MM doesn't exist yet, almost anything to do with the nanoscale might turn out to be helpful, right?
Without some careful study of molecular manufacturing theory, there's no basis for more specific criteria. And someone who hasn't done that careful study might simply miss the fact that there's anything to study.
The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) looks pretty bad to the MM community. Several of the NNI's most prominent spokesmen and leaders have said that MM is ridiculous, impossible. But they claim to have the same goals as MM, and be working toward those goals. Meanwhile, they fund lots of research that clearly has nothing to do with MM, and almost none that's helpful. Now they've started listing "nanomanufacturing" as one of their Program Component Areas. But we know they don't like MM--they actively sabotage it--so they must be trying to muddy the waters by pretending they're working on it when they're not. In fact, this accusation was made on the last day of the recent NAS meeting.
But--suppose some people in NNI leadership think that the NNI is doing a good job of working toward complete technical competence at the nanoscale. And suppose that they have never paid all that much attention to MM, except to note that the goal is the same. Suppose they don't realize that the MM style is rather different from most of the nanoscale technologies they are funding. Suppose they think that the rhetorical attacks of the past few years against MM are just squabbles over details of method rather than attempts to shut down an entire subfield. In short, suppose they've never learned enough about MM to realize that they should learn more about it.
Is this line of supposition self-consistent? It seems so. It requires assuming that the NNI does not have a unified understanding of MM: some people there think it's a narrow, politically dangerous, and technically implausible proposal that should be squashed, while others think it's a very broad goal that can best be achieved by broad research. It seems quite plausible that people involved with the NNI would be uncoordinated on some issues, maybe including MM. And MM is elegant once you learn it, but it's not intuitive, and there haven't been any tutorials available that would be suitable for a busy administrator. Several days after the conversation, I'm still thinking about how to explain how to judge which research is relevant--and I've been studying MM for more than a decade.
My current working hypothesis that almost no one on either side actually understands each other's position. The solution is communication.