Last year, CRN criticized the US National Science Foundation for "missing the point on nanotechnology." We took exception to a report (PDF) they issued following a meeting of science policy representatives from 25 countries and the European Union convened by the NSF to discuss how to carry out nanotechnology research and development "in a responsible manner."
Unfortunately, that meeting and report addressed only near-term nanoscale technologies such as nanoparticles. The most important long-term consequences of nanotechnology were ignored. As an example, a question in the report about whether nanotechnology will be "inherently continuous or inherently disruptive" leads to a digression about "novel properties that only become evident at the nanoscale." In fact, nanotechnology will be disruptive because of molecular manufacturing.
By ignoring the societal and environmental impacts of molecular manufacturing, the NSF missed the major significance of the technology. Our objection is that they purported to address responsible research and development of nanotechnology, but didn't. They presented themselves as asking the right questions, but the answers provided were worse than wrong: they were simply off-topic.
Howard Lovy, CRN's esteemed (and embattled) colleague, wrote an entry today on his blog pointing out the discrepancy between the advanced nanotech research many people think the US government supports, and the actual nanoscale technologies they are funding.
We have documented this policy confusion before, and we're not the only ones who have noticed it. Referring to US nanotechnology spending priorities, an editorial in the latest issue of The New Atlantis said:
Clearly, Congress desired at least some federal funding to be spent on pursuing molecular manufacturing, but instead virtually all of it has gone into far more mundane nanoscale research. The research the government is presently funding will lead to useful progress in several fields, but molecular manufacturing could lead to revolutionary breakthroughs in production, medicine, aerospace, and more.
There is reason to think that these inconsistencies may soon be sorted out. The first report from a committee formed to evaluate activities and progress of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative is due next month. We supported the committee with briefing papers, and our Director of Research, Chris Phoenix, attended numerous sessions in February and spoke on one expert panel.