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NSF & Congress

House Science Committee
Hearing on H.R. 766, The Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003

April 9, 2003

On Wednesday, April 9, the House Science Committee held a hearing to examine the societal implications of nanotechnology in the context of legislation that would authorize up to $350 million in funding for nanoscale research at NSF and establish a National Nanotechnology Coordination Office.

In his opening statement, Chairman Boehlert noted the difficulty of predicting the future of nanotechnology while emphasizing the importance of making the best possible effort to assess potential environmental and health risks of research in the field. He added that the committee will mark up H.R. 766 after the Easter recess, and that he expects it to be on the floor of the House the following week.

Ray Kurzweil, Founder of Kurzweil Technologies ( a software development firm) emphasized the pace of technology development, noting that electronic and mechanical devices are shrinking at rapid rates that will lead to a "golden age" of nanotechnology in the 2020's. He suggested that pursuit of nanoscale science and engineering will continue advances in quality of life that have accompanied previous technological innovation, and that attempts to relinquish nanotechnology will just push it underground. Mr. Kurzweil also stated that society has already seen the effects of non-biological, self-replicating organisms in the form of software viruses. He suggested that a successful "immune system" has been developed to protect the internet without regulation, and that any future threats from self-replicating nanoproducts would be dealt with in a similar fashion.

Dr. Vicki Colvin, Executive Director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University, suggested that nano-researchers should make a more concerted effort to address public concerns about possible health and environmental risks. She suggested that a "public relations nightmare" due to suspicion of nanotechnology risks could be devastating to research, citing the country's experiences with DDT and asbestos as reasons for early research on risks and open communication with the public. She suggested that 5% of the total nanotech budget go to research on social, ethical, and environmental implications of nano-research. Dr. Colvin also stressed the importance of leaving technological forecasting to nano-researchers, but assigning social and environmental scientists the task of assessing impacts of nano-products.

Dr. Langdon Winner, Professor of Political Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, emphasized the public's role in defining the future of nano-research. He suggested that acceptance of technology requires a receptive audience, and that efforts to ignore public concerns about research have resulted in distrust and resistance. Dr. Winner suggested the public be given a role in determining nanotech's future through citizen panels that would study nano-related issues, citing an existing NSF award, "Social Dimensions of Engineering, Science, and Technology," as a model.

Ms. Christine Peterson, Co-founder and President of Foresight Institute, discussed potential benefits of nano-research, including pollution-free molecular manufacturing, new lightweight materials that will make space travel cheap, environmental restoration at the molecular level, and health benefits including restoration of damaged tissues. She addressed concerns about nanotech's risks by stating that draft safety rules to avoid accidents already exist, that abuse of nanotech could be avoided with an open international effort, and that access to nanotech advances could be assured by not allowing discouraging patents of basic molecular "parts." She also suggested that a feasibility study of nanotech's possibilities should be conducted by the technical community.

When polled about their views of the potential dangers of nanoscale technology, witnesses included risks involving with self-replicating systems (although not until well into the future); irreversible experiments; and the need to assess the potential biological and environmental hazards of existing experimental nanoscale products.

Rep. Rohrbacher (R-CA) asked if the witnesses really believed social scientists should be assessing implications of nano-research. All witnesses supported social and environmental scientists in assessment of risks, citing the need for their particular expertise. They also mentioned previous problems in various research fields as examples of how poor public relations can hamper science. Dr. Colvin, however, stressed that technological forecasts of what nanoscale research may produce should be left to researchers.

Rep. Sherman (D-CA) commended Dr. Colvin's recommendation of spending 5% of the nano budget on SI research. He then asked witnesses to state how long they felt it would be until artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. Answers ranged from 25-45 years, with Mr. Winner stating that he hopes it never happens. However, Mr. Kurzweil stressed that the goal of nano is to enhance human performance, not create a successor species.

Rep. Gutknecht (F-MN) stated that nano-research will inevitably go forward, and asked how to ensure that it will be conducted in a moral way. All witnesses urged greater public education as the best way to ensure that nano-technology is embraced and succesfully controlled.

Rep. Bell (D-TX) asked how Dr. Colvin would like to see proposals reviewed and whether creating a successor species was the goal of nanotechnologists. She reiterated her opinion that researchers should determine potential scientific outcomes of research, but that social and environmental scientists should assess risks of those outcomes. She also said that she believed replicating organism scenarios are untenable.

Rep. Smith (R-MI) asked about corporate interest and investment in nanotech. All witnesses stated that there was substantial interest in nanotech in the private sector, but Ms. Peterson said that industry expected research to be supported by federal funds until products are ready to come to market. Mr. Winner questioned the wisdom of heavily subsidizing industry in one area in this manner.

Rep. Wu (D-OR) suggested that it is appropriate to draw a set of lines to control research rather than leaving researchers to work in isolation. He also noted that scientists and engineers should not have a stronger vote on what society should be doing than other interested parties.

In concluding remarks Mr. Kurzweil supported Dr. Colvin's call for 5% of the budget to be directed toward social, ethical, and environmental implications research. Dr. Colvin urged that environmental impacts be considered as part of societal implications research. She also stressed that strong support is necessary to engage scientists and agencies in societal implications research. Dr. Winner reiterated his support for citizens panels to provide input into nano-oriented decision-making. Ms. Peterson emphasized that more public outreach and discussion is needed, possibly even more than societal implications research. She also warned that fear of potential risks from long-term nanotechnology goals, like self-replication, is "spilling over" onto near-term work and creating unfounded concerns about this early research.