Addressing the Myths of science and public policy: Part II
Technology and Society Magazine, IEEE
Vol. 23, Num. 1
In part one of this series, Peckerar analyzed the role of hype in the formation of science policy. In this article he focuses a dour eye on the NNI. The NNI is "gathering up steam," as demonstrated by a network of clean rooms, a half-a-billion dollars across 14 federal agencies. Peckerar is concerned that in the rush to fund, "no coherent definition of nanotechnology has emerged." He sees some positive advances: there is now more funding available for basic research. "We have made real advances in our ability to see and manipulate atoms and molecules directly." But, in pursing all things nano, the actual customer may be overlooked. Who wants and who is buying nano parts and products? If indeed funding for the NNI comes at the expense of other things which could be funded, then we ought to be careful not to cut the valuable and useful lines between government funding and those who will make useful products for society.
Peckerar cites David Hilbert, a mathematician who succinctly set out the challenges of his field to his peers. Within two decades, many of the 23 problems he named had be solved or tackled. Hilbert sought only those problems which were a) general and conceptual b) would provide new capabilities and c)spur on new work. These criteria, argues Peckerar, ought to applied to an organization such as the NNI. "Buzz" ought not to dominate, and he gives the not-well-thought-through example of quantum dots to argue for the sort of project he believes should not be funded.
Although such a large and cross-disciplinary project as the NNI has few precedents, Peckerar says that there are real problems to be solved, and the interfaces between disciplines are the place to solve them. He offers a list, like Hilbert's to spur further research. Among them: "can we make a predictive model of a cell?" "will we be able to image molecular assemblages of a size significant to most biological processes?" "Will we be able to use Einstein's 'spooky action at a distance' to help address any of the above questions?" Peckerar hopes that scientists avoiding rigorous peer review and problems poorly defined will be excluded from the work of the NNI and more traditional DoD lines of funding.