• WisBusiness

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Small-scale regulation may bring big-time troubles for Wisconsin nanotech


By Tom Still
Human embryonic stem cell research is science the political right loves to hate, but the left has discovered a demon science of its own: nanotechnology.

In liberal enclaves such as Cambridge, Mass., and Berkeley, Calif., and within a public safety culture skilled at finding routes of least resistance to new government regulation, a movement is spreading to rein in nanotechnology for risks real, perceived and imagined. Unfortunately, Wisconsin appears to be a target.

A special study committee convened by the Wisconsin Legislature is considering state oversight of the burgeoning nanotechnology industry, even though many experts believe national and international safety standards would be more effective – and more efficient in promoting nanotechnology’s economic benefits.

While the committee’s work is far from done, one recommendation could be creation of a statewide nanotechnology registry that would require researchers and business people to disclose details about if – and how – they are working with nanomaterials. Such a registry would be a time-burning exercise that could drive nanotechnology research and businesses elsewhere.

Nanotechnology is a catch-all description for activities at the level of atoms and molecules that have applications in the much larger physical world. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or about 1/80,000th the diameter of a human hair. Viewed another way, a nanometer is about 10 times the diameter of a hydrogen atom.

Nanotechology is a platform for advancing other sciences. It is about defining, fabricating and synthesizing materials, devices and systems that have features and functions at the molecular scale. The applications for bioengineering, genomics, optics, computer chips, robotics and materials science are so vast that scientists believe they’re only now scratching the surface.

Under that surface for Wisconsin is a scientific industry that fits well with the state’s advanced manufacturing, electrical equipment and medical device clusters, among others.

“Nanotechnology is about making stuff,” said John Biondi, president of Xolve Inc., a nanotech company based on research developed at UW-Platteville, “and in Wisconsin, we’re good at making stuff.”

It is estimated that nanotechnology will be a $3.1 trillion global industry by 2015, but its economic effect is still modest in Wisconsin. There are start-up companies such as Xolve and Oshkosh Nanotechnology, some more mature companies such as nPoint and some larger firms that employ nanotechnology in a variety of processes. But while Wisconsin’s colleges and universities are leaders in many research fields, a recent ranking of major U.S. universities showed UW-Madison outside the top 10 in nanotech patents.

Those are reasons not to stifle nanotechnology in Wisconsin before it has a chance to grow, according to a UW-Madison professor known nationally for his work in understanding public attitudes about nanotechnology.

“Unilateral regulations (at the state or local level) carry a serious risk of having Wisconsin fall even further behind other neighboring states, with potentially detrimental effects to the state economy,” wrote Dietram Scheufele, who holds appointments at UW-Madison and Arizona State University. He is currently a visiting fellow at Harvard University.

In a letter to the Legislative Council’s Special Committee on Nanotechnology, Scheufele noted that development of regulations are well underway at the federal level, and stressed that state and local efforts would “create competitive disadvantages within the United States and create nano clusters elsewhere.”

The largest “elsewhere” is China. American researchers are already falling behind China in terms of nanotech patents and research publications, with long-term implications for the U.S. economy and national security.

No scientist would claim working with nanoparticles is risk-free, but most resist the notion of state or local regulation. An exception is the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which has cultivated the notion of nanotech regulation beyond the federal level. The Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies acknowledges political liberals are more likely to hold that view than conservatives.

“When exposed to balanced and accurate information, people who hold largely individualistic and hierarchical cultural outlooks tend to see nanotechnology as more beneficial,” the center noted in a 2007 report. “People who hold largely communitarian and egalitarian outlooks, in contrast, tend to see nanotechnology as more risky when exposed to that same information… The same polarization occurs between people who, in political terms, describe themselves as conservatives and those who describe themselves as liberals.”

In a world in which all research is portable, both within and outside national borders, America cannot afford to chill scientific endeavor for political reasons. Science is science. It’s neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat nor Republican. Let’s hope the Wisconsin Legislature embraces that principle, whether the science at hand involves working with tiny cells or atomic particles.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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