Nanotechnology: Innovation vs. Corporate Welfare

Nanotechnology – the art and science of manipulating matter at the scale of 1 to 100 nanometers – is a field with seemingly limitless potential. But if researchers and politicians are not careful, that potential will vanish. Nanotech firms have a choice between being entrepreneurs, or being corporate welfare recipients. The choices they make today could determine whether the future of nanotech is one of dynamism and innovation, or one of dull, bureaucratic stasis.

A nanotech boom is already underway. Just this week, the number of products that scientists have invented or improved passed the 1,000 mark. In two years, there could be 1,600. MIT nanotech researchers announced this month that they have discovered a way to kill ovarian cancer cells in mice. Treatments for other types of cancer may soon follow.

More mundane goods that have benefited from the nano touch range from drill bits to sun screen to tennis racquets. More than $250 billion worth of nanotech-enhanced goods are expected to be sold in 2009, up more than $100 billion from the year before. This is impressive growth, especially during a recession.

Innovation is what nanotechnology is all about – at least for now. Many firms are actively seeking, and getting, government funding and promotion. It’s easy to see why. Free money is hard to pass up. And about $1,500,000,000 of it will be doled out this year. More is sure to follow.

It sounds great at first. Given the potential returns nanotech research offers, putting public money into it seems like a great investment. From a humanitarian viewpoint, one could argue that the more money we spend on nanotech research, the more lives we could save. Nanotechnology may be on the verge of curing cancer, and it may help conquer other diseases in due time.

Unfortunately, publicly funded research doesn’t work that way, no matter how noble the intentions of the people giving it out. Funding controversial research with taxpayer dollars can create a public backlash. Stem cell researchers found that out the hard way; in the wake of federal funding controversies, six states have banned embryonic stem cell research within their borders, period.

If nanotechnology were to meet a similar fate, the cost to mankind would be incalculable. Nanotechnology research would be much safer if kept out of politics.

Government money also comes with strings attached; it is its nature. Regulations limit what companies are allowed to research. Juicy grants shepherd researchers to politically favored fields, rather than the most fruitful.

H.R. 554, which has passed the House, would create a 3-year strategic plan to fund determine both “near-term research objectives and long-term research objectives” in “areas of national importance.”

Science would be better served if researchers make their own decisions about their research programs.

Government funding has another, subtler effect that, in the long run, is ultimately the most important: complacency. Most companies have to compete and innovate to survive. If their research doesn’t come up with anything useful, they go out of business. Survival means always innovating, always improving. It means staying hungry. It means creating things that people want.

A nanotech firm that lives mostly off of government grants lives a sheltered, more docile existence. It doesn’t need to come up with new products that save peoples’ lives, or make them better. They just have to be good at getting grants. Such is the life of the corporate welfare queen. We have too many of those as it is.

If society is to reap the boundless benefits of nanotechnology, researchers need to resist public funding, tempting though it is. Embracing the life of the entrepreneur, and rejecting the life of the corporate welfare queen, is the only way for companies to research what they choose, and to avoid wasting precious resources on politically popular boondoggles.

For the sake of consumers, nanotech firms should compete in the marketplace, not in Washington. Otherwise a vibrant, dynamic, and innovative sector risks becoming a dreary public utility like any other.