Archive for March, 2010

Warning: This post is not related to main topic of this blog “OR for nanotechnology”, but I decided to publish this interview in this blog, because I do not have any other English blog and do not plan to start one.

This interview was done over email. I thank Andrew Maynard for devoting his time to answering my questions. I recommend you to follow his blog 2020Science and also you can find him on Twitter.

1 – Can you please introduce yourself?
My name is Andrew Maynard. I’m the Chief Science Advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC.  This is a project that was set up in 2005 to help governments, businesses, consumers and others identify and overcome hurdles to developing nanotechnologies safely and responsibly.  I’m a physicist by training – I got my Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the UK in 1993.  Most of my research career has been as a scientist in the field of occupational health and aerosol exposure though.  For the past few years, I have been increasingly involved in science communication and policy – especially when it comes to emerging technologies like nanotechnology.

2 – How did you learn about nanotechnology?
I think the first time I heard the word “nanotechnology” and it registered with me was probably towards the end of the 1990’s.  Ten years earlier, I was working on developing new techniques to analyze nanometer-scale airborne particles, but at the time people weren’t using the term “nanotech” widely.  Around 1995, I became aware of new research indicating that nanometer scale particles could present an unusual health risk if inhaled.  This led to me becoming increasingly interested in research in this area.  In 1999 I was an author on an internal report at the Health and Safety Laboratory in the UK on the research challenges associated with workplace exposure to what were then called ultrafine particles.  This report included a chapter on nanotechnology, and its potential to lead to people being exposed to new materials with uncertain risks.  At the time, nanotechnology was an emerging field, but even then it was possible to see its potential for stimulating great change, as well as raising substantial challenges.

3 – How your views on “responsible development” of nanotechnologies changed over years? Do you think it is possible?
To be honest, I think my views on responsible nanotechnologies are constantly evolving.  This isn’t surprising, as this is still a relatively new area, and new information and ideas are constantly appearing.  I have long-held the view that any technology should be developed in a way that is mindful of the potential long and short-term impacts to people and the environment, and that social good is a more important factor in assessing technology innovation than profit.  But how you ensure that an emerging technology like nanotechnology follows a responsible development trajectory is another matter.  I thing we are still learning what the hurdles to the technology’s responsible development are, and how best to overcome them.  That said, one hurdle that I am beginning to think we have created for ourselves is the term “nanotechnology” itself.  As an increasingly diverse range of products are developed that rely on engineering at the nanoscale, the important questions that underpin responsible development will depend on the specific nature of these individual products and product groups.  Framing responsible development in terms of nanotechnology rather than the specific technologies that are emerging runs the risk of leading to the wrong questions being asked, and the wrong answers being found.

4 – What do you expect from nanotechnology? Which problems will be solved, which ones will not?
That’s a tough one.  If you think instead of nanoscience – our greater understanding of how the world works at the nanoscale and how to take advantage of that – I think that our increasing ability to work at the nanoscale will have a profound impact on our lives.  Where existing technologies have been limited by our ability to ensure a precise structure at the atomic and molecular level, nanoscience will help us to make things work better.  In this respect, it is hard to think of any existing technology that couldn’t benefit in some way from advances in nanoscience – nanoscience adds value to products and processes.  At the same time, advances in nanoscience are allowing us to do things we have never been able to do before – create smart drugs, develop new platforms for computing, engineer multifunctional materials…

These two strands of adding value to existing technologies and generating brand new technologies will undoubtedly expand the tools at our disposal for tackling major issues like food production, water purification, disease treatment, energy generation, storage and supply.  But the important thing here is not to pin our hopes on nanoscience and nanotechnology.  These are important tools.  But they are part of a much larger toolbox when it comes to addressing challenges – and in some cases, there will be better tools for the job.

5 – What do you think about USA’s national nanotechnology strategy? What else should be done? What are the deficiencies of the system?
That’s a big question, and I’m not sure how completely I can answer it in just a few words.  The US National Nanotechnology Initiative has been incredibly influential in stimulating new science and the development of new technologies.   I think it is fair to say that the initiative – and the strategy that underpins it – has changed the world.  But could it be better? Yes.  Three areas in particular I would highlight where I think there is room for improvement:

Understanding the broader social, economic and policy implications of actions.  The US is an influential country.  When it acts, people respond.  So while the US nanotechnology initiative may have been focused on science and technology initially, it has sent ripples through social, economic and policy communities around the world.  However, I’m not sure the leaders of the initiative in the US have fully understood the global impacts of their actions, or the responsibility that comes with such “power.” For instance, we now see economies around the world diverting funding into nanotechnology because the US took the lead, and they don’t want to be left out.  I wonder in how many cases these changes in investment were driven by an assumption that the US knew best, rather than responding to their own needs.  Likewise, the US focus on nanotechnology has led to many broader social and safety questions that have not been addressed well.

Marketing.  The US nanotechnology strategy has raised expectations for the technology that haven’t been met – in part because the time it takes to develop new technologies is usually rather longer than just a few years.  As a result, there is a danger that researchers, investors and consumers will become disenfranchised with the technology before it has had a chance to reach its full potential.

Then there is the issue of human and environmental safety.  To be sure, the US government and other governments and businesses around the world have done an amazing job of attempting to address possible risks before they arise.  But the question remains – have they done enough.  Last year’s National Academies of Science review of the US environmental, health and safety impacts research strategy indicated more is needed if nanotechnologies are to be developed responsibly.

6 – Various research results tell us that most of the US population (I am sure the same situation is present also in other countries) does not know much about nanotechnology. Will this be a problem?
I’m not sure it will, but I’m not an expert here.  It’s true that awareness of nanotechnology remains low.  But then awareness of many things remains low.  The more important question is whether people will have the information the need – in a form that is useful – to make informed decisions about nanotechnologies as and when the reed arises.

7 – Will nanotechnology have similar fate as genetically modified organisms, nuclear energy?
I don’t think it will, for the simple reason that nanotechnology is a buzz word for a really broad group of very different technologies, rather than being a specific technology.  That said, we may find that specific uses of nanotechnology – in foods say – may have a harder time being developed and used in products than others (like nano-electronics).

8 – Who do you think will be “true winners” of nanotechnology era?
If we get it right, all of us.  There is an increased move towards technology development through partnership – meaning that the people who stand to benefit from innovation (people like me and you) become part of the equation.  We’re not there yet, but we are getting closer.  And if this trend continues, I can see an increasing likelihood of nanoscience being used to solve challenges that improve the quality of life for millions, if not billions, of people.

9 – What will be the “3rd Industrial Revolution”? 🙂 (We’ve got bored from nanotechnology, it will be everywhere in 10-15 years, so we should find new topic to talk about)
Ha ha.  I was tempted to say synthetic biology, but I actually think we’re entering an era where technology innovation is so interconnected and fast that the revolutionary change will come in how we combine different areas of expertise – some would call it convergence.  I also suspect that we will only be able to define this “third industrial revolution” with hindsight – being in the midst of it will be like being in a cloud – you can only see it when you come out the other side.

10 – Do you want to add something? Thank you for the interview.
Only that we live in incredibly exciting times, that our technological ability over the few years will outstrip anything we have been able to do in the past, and that despite this, we mustn’t fall into the trap of becoming so infatuated with the technology of the day that we miss the obvious solutions to pressing challenges.

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