BT is clearly interested in the developments in Nanotechnology, especially as
it is a fundamental technology that will have a large impact on the world in
which we operate, and on the businesses of our customers.
We track developments in Nanotechnology through our foresight and horizon scanning
activities (especially through engagement with UK and US universities) and through
our participation in industry and expert group bodies. However, we are not directly
engaged in R&D in this field. Consequently, our comments are from the outside,
looking in at the academic and industrial research being carried out in the
world around us.
Convergence of nanoscience, biotechnology, IT and cognitive science
We can see that there is global interest and excitement about the technology,
its potential and the environmental and ethical concerns that arise from it.
There is a “hype factor” about some of this debate, fuelled by both
extravagant claims and by science fiction.
However, there is also serious and well-informed discussion, both about Nano-technology
and about the putative convergence of nanoscience, biotechnology, IT and cognitive
There are two constituencies in this discussion:
- US and EU agencies, seeking to stimulate discussion and progress for example:
- 2001 NSF workshop on NBIC “…tremendous improvement in human
abilities, societal outcomes, the nation’s productivity and the quality
- EU high-level expert group on NBIC convergence.
- Pressure groups seeking to stimulate debate about the social and ethical
consequences of scientific advances), for example:
“If public dialogue on science is to mean anything, the approach of
Nanotechnology is a huge opportunity”
Group - 'The big down' report
”ETC Group believes that nano-scale convergence will become the operative
strategy for corporate control of commercial food, agriculture and health
in the 21st century.”
In this context, the current report is a welcome contribution to this global
discussion, from those at the coalface who understand the scientific realities
and challenges, and who have a realistic view of the timescales involved.
It is to be greatly valued, and it conveys an accurate representation of the
current state of nanoscience and Nanotechnology.
However, there are two aspects of the report that give us concern:
- “Science fiction” –Yes, there is fiction but, as indicated
above, there is also serious and well-informed debate taking place about the
potential of this technology, and its convergence with other technologies.
Greenpeace and the NSF are actually not that far apart in their assessment
of the potential and the timescales. The scientific culture in the US is perhaps
more comfortable with discussions at this level of vision, but this should
not just be dismissed as “scientists making exaggerated claims in their
research proposals”. There are also serious scientists who are speculating
about technology, but taking quite a long-term view.
- There is a common effect: one often overestimates what one can achieve in
a year, but underestimates what the industry will achieve in ten years. Is
this effect visible here, and being amplified by reaction to the “science
fiction”? It is always dangerous to rule things out on the basis of
physical laws, since scientists and engineers often find ways to restate the
problem, and this can act as a barrier to invention and wealth creation.
We would like to make the following points although not directly a reaction
to the content of the report :
- Does this distort the balance of investments across these areas? Does it
associate a broad range of technologies with specific risk factors, and distort
the public debate?
- (***should be discussed with Richard Nicol) Regional policy – a lot
of the UK investment in MNT is being channelled through the RDAs, but not
into the East of England, even though we have assets here that can contribute
to the technology.
Stewart Davies FREng BSc CEng FIEE
CEO BT Exact