Foresight call to action

December 16, 2003 by Christine Peterson

Despite the revolutionary promise of molecular nanotechnology (MNT), the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) excludes explicit funding for MNT. The recent Drexler-Smalley debate in Chemical & Engineering News offers an opportunity to correct that. Foresight president Christine Peterson suggests how.

Nobel chemist Richard Smalley has responded to Dr. Eric Drexler’s challenge to defend the controversial direction of U.S. policy in nanotechnology, which excludes work on molecular manufacturing. This debate—and the subsequent press coverage—offers an opportunity to change the flawed course of the field.

The revolutionary promise of molecular nanotechnology (MNT) has become a part of society’s expectations for the future. This technology will provide nanomedicine breakthroughs that could cure cancer and extend life spans, bring abundance without environmental harm, and provide clean sources of energy. These ideas are part of the vision that launched the field of nanotechnology.

Although the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) currently supports a host of valuable projects, it is excluding work explicitly directed toward MNT. In an effort to distance the field from fears that might threaten funding, the leading NNI spokesman, Dr. Richard Smalley, has declared that molecular assemblers are impossible. This stance has opened a vast gap, creating a world in which students interested in pursuing MNT research lack sponsorship, while lab groups and start-up companies working toward MNT goals must hide their intentions. By declaring molecular assembly technology to be impossible, detractors have tried to relegate it to fringe status.

Fortunately, this erroneous situation is beginning to change, in part because the extended Foresight community refuses to let this important issue be dismissed. We now have a unique opportunity to seize the momentum. Richard Smalley has responded to my challenge, and the ensuing exchange—the Dec. 1 cover story of the American Chemical Society’s magazine, Chemical & Engineering News—may mark a tipping point, but only if it is seen—and properly understood—by a wider audience, and if it is properly translated into action.


I urge you to read the Foresight press release. Read the full exchange and then consider what part you can play in adding to the momentum. The detractors of MNT have shown the power of disinformation; it’s time they saw what well-informed people can do.

Some suggestions:

1.     SPEAK UP: make others aware of what’s going on. Forward the press release and the exchange. Write a letter to the editor of your favorite publication, attaching these materials and requesting coverage of this important issue. Raise issues and answer naysayers though message boards and blogs. Show the opposition our numbers and knowledge.

2.     ELEVATE THE DEBATE: shift the discussion on molecular assemblers and molecular manufacturing from rhetoric and metaphors to science and research. Demand proof from those dismissing the accomplishments to date. Give someone influential a copy of Nanosystems (chapters 1 and 2 are on the web). Refer them to the work of Ralph Merkle, Robert Freitas and others.

3.     GET MORE ACTIVE: request seminars and classes on related topics. Transform your next social event or book group to focus on these issues. Become more engaged with Foresight :


Regardless of what avenues you may choose, make your voice and intentions heard. Our future is counting on you.

Christine Peterson,
Foresight Institute

Foresight Institute, PO Box 61058, Palo Alto, CA 94306 USA
tel +1 650 917 1122 fax +1 650 917 1123

Foresight is the leading public interest organization in nanotechnology. A non-profit educational think tank, Foresight Institute was founded in 1986.