Nanotechnology, the science of manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular level, could revolutionize everything from computing to medicine to warfare. But some say that if hypothetical nanomachines escape from the lab and reproduce in the wild, they could wreak havoc on the planet.
Nevertheless, the governments of the United States and other countries should adopt a regime of "modest regulation, civilian research, and an emphasis on self-regulation," says a report released this week by the free-market Pacific Research Institute, a California think tank.
Written by Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee and editor of the InstaPundit.com Web log, the report represents a kind of pre-emptive strike against legal attempts to limit, prohibit or otherwise ban nanotechnology.
Because the business of nanotechnology is still in its early stages, no specific regulatory proposals have been advanced so far. But the liberal ETC Group has called for a global moratorium on manufacturing nanomaterials, and Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy famously warned that mankind must not unleash nanotechnology because it could "destroy the biosphere on which all life depends."
Reynolds' answer to those arguments is part pragmatic and part principled. He dismisses a complete ban as "draconian" and unworkable and says permitting only military research could work over the short term--but it would cause society to forgo valuable benefits such as medical advances and cures for diseases.
A better model to follow, Reynolds argues, is the one the biotechnology industry adopted after a series of seminal conferences in the early 1970s.
"The DNA experience suggests that a combination of self-regulation and government coordination can answer legitimate safety concerns while allowing research to flourish," Reynolds writes. "Proper regulation offers the prospect of minimizing nanotechnology's risks, while maximizing potential benefits."
In an interview, Reynolds called the paper "an invitation for people to talk about this stuff. If they're not willing to talk about this now, then they're in no position to complain when ground nanopork shows up in their grocery store."
During a presentation earlier this year at a Foresight Institute conference devoted to exploring policy and technical issues surrounding nanotech, a former national security advisor for Al Gore predicted sharp government interest and involvement.
"These guys talking here act as though the government is not part of their lives," said
In Feb. 1999, the Foresight Institute drafted its own guidelines for nanotechnology research. Those guidelines say in part that molecular machines must not be able to replicate in a natural, uncontrolled environment, and industry self-regulation should be encouraged.
Washington's interest in nanotechnology is growing. In June, the Bush administration recommended a budget of $710 million for the existing National Nanotechnology Initiative for the 2003 fiscal year. That would be an increase of about 17 percent, with the majority of the funds going to the National Science Foundation, the Defense Department and the Energy Department.
In September, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.,a bill that calls for more government spending on nanotech research, along with the creation of a program to coordinate federal efforts in the area and balance research objectives with ethical and societal concerns.
The theoretical scenario of escaped nanomachines may soon enter the popular consciousness in a big way. "Jurassic Park" author Michael Crichton explores it in his new book, "Prey," set for release Monday.