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When Molecules Fly

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When Molecules Fly

Crews Op-Ed from Tech Central Station

Should the federal government fund scientific research with taxpayer dollars? Boondoggles like the Superconducting Supercollider, the space station, energy research programs, the Supersonic Transport plane, and numerous other examples of corporate and scientific pork argue for leaving such efforts to free enterprise.

Eight years ago, Congress seemed to agree. Upon the release of the "Contract With America" to reduce the size of government in Washington, the first Republican Congress in 40 years proposed sweeping reforms like privatizing national laboratories and government research programs. There was even legislation to create a Corporate Subsidy Reform Commission, an attempt, modeled on the military base closing commission, to curb billions in handouts to private companies, i.e., business welfare.

But now Republican advocacy of science pork is back. Exhibit A for 2003 is nanotechnology, the cutting-edge science of direct manipulation of matter at the molecular level. Government wants to get involved in a big way, despite companies such as IBM, Hewlett Packard, and Intel—and numerous venture capitalists—already taking the lead. Promised applications include smaller and cheaper computer chips, nano-scale "punch cards" to boost computer storage, stronger-than-steel carbon "nanotubes" with myriad applications, and new materials and coatings including responsive clothing.

The field sports its share of hype: Surely, promised "nanobots" to attack cancers and other human ailments—or even repair cellular damage and revive cryogenically frozen human beings—

remain in the far-distant future. Similarly, the proposed "Starlight Express" carbon-nanotube elevator to outer space—from a NASA-funded outfit called Highlift Systems—belongs to the realm of science fiction.

Perhaps more representative are today's uses in cosmetics and sunscreens, and "NanoTitanium" fishing rods that incorporate nano-particle titanium and carbon fiber.

Regardless, the little technology has clearly reached the big time. Michael Crichton's best-selling novel Prey, the story of destructive, out-of-control nanobots. is surely only the latest in pop culture's speculations on the dark side of micro-engineering. Meanwhile, the ETC Group, while alarmed about the potential hazards of unrestrained nanotechnology, points out that yearly scientific citations to "nano" have grown nearly 40-fold, the number of nano-related patents is surging, and nine nanotechnology-related Nobel prizes have been awarded since 1990.

To many in Congress, what's needed is not a free hand for technology entrepreneurs to explore this blossoming field, but government money. President Bush's proposed 2004 fiscal year budget for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is $847 million, a 9.5 percent increase over 2003. The NNI was created by the Bush administration in 2001. In addition, the House Science Committee just authorized a $2.4 billion funding program for nanotechnology, and the full House is likely to approve it. That's not huge by Washington standards, but such programs only grow.

Politicians have no innate ability to pick among competing technologies, whether nano, macro, or otherwise. If they did, they'd be entrepreneurs themselves. And they're particularly bad at the job when using taxpayer money. Politicians can merely transfer wealth, which automatically invites wasteful porkbarreling to propel funds to one's home state. Scientific merit need not carry the day. But even if it did, taxpayers should get to decide for themselves which technologies to invest in.

Nanotechnology is plainly viable on its own, moving forward on fronts too numerous to catalog, all seeking to make breakthroughs before others. Nanotech venture capitalist Josh Wolfe told Wired magazine that most business proposals he sees now have "nano" in the title. Venture capitalists have plowed in hundreds of millions of dollars over the past five years. And according to the National Science Foundation, the market in nanotech products could be $1 trillion a year by 2015. That's nearly 10 percent the size of today's gross domestic product.

The vigorous calls for government research seem in part a reaction to the technology market downturn. But we ought not look for a technology savior in emergent biotech or nanotech spawned in government labs. Forthcoming technologies should be products of capitalism and entrepreneurship, not central planning, government R&D, and pork barrel. Tomorrow's nanotechnology markets have too much potential and are too important be creatures of government.

It's still early enough in this particular pork game to stop it before it goes any further. My Cato Institute colleague Tom Miller put it best when asked by technology reporter Declan McCullagh about federal nanotechnology funding: "I suggest giving them nanodollars."