How the Grinch Stole Nanotech and More

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When Richard Feynman gave a visionary talk in 1959 entitled "There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom," the renowned physicist set out the idea of molecular nanotechnology. He spoke of reducing 24 million book volumes to a cube only 0.02 inches wide. He spoke of atomic-level machines producing other such machines. He spoke of creating molecules atom by atom. None of his visions violated the laws of physics. All were feasible. If big technical problems could be overcome, the practical uses would be phenomenal.

Feynman talked about discovery "just for the fun of it." He talked about "some kind of high school competition." If it took an economic incentive to "excite you to do it," he’d give "$1,000 to the first guy who can" reduce a page by 1/25,000 so that it could be read by an electron microscope. Feynman was sane to think of high school students making breakthroughs. He was sane to think of discovery for the fun of it, coming in first, or a minor prize. Feynman’s still big. It’s the times that have grown small.

Feynman didn’t mention the government. He had just resigned from the National Academy of Sciences (set up by an Act of Congress in 1863) because of its elitism. Earlier, concerned that Hitler would develop the atomic bomb first, he had worked on the Manhattan Project. In 1986 he disapproved of the cover-up politics of the commission investigating the Challenger accident. On television, he gave a simple demonstration of how the vehicle’s O-rings had failed. This took some O-ring material, a glass of ice water, and a clamp. It didn’t require federal funding.

As a schoolboy Feynman learned science by reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. At home he set up a lab. He taught himself elementary math. Feynman’s IQ was reportedly between 124 and 137, not at the so-called genius level. He thought intensely about important problems. He knew physics. He knew the great works and theories. Yet he also knew that to generate new ideas, his own ideas, he had to question and disregard, even not know, what everybody else was doing. He had to follow his own instincts. He knew how to nurture his own creativity. This counted for a great deal. It still does.

In his talk, Feynman didn’t mention the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF is a government agency that distributes tax dollars to universities for research. It began in 1951 with a $200,000 budget (in today’s dollars). This grew to $39 million in 1957 and leaped to $133 million when the Russians placed Sputnik in orbit. Feynman was someone very special who kept asking "why" until he found an interesting problem. Intense curiosity drove him, not money. His self-motivated puzzle-solving began years before the NSF started.

Feynman was no libertarian, but he had a healthy skepticism of government. He did very important work without the support of grants. Being a theoretical physicist, he could not help but use the products of experiments supported with government money. He knew that government money corrupted scientific work and objectivity. Concerning the Challenger he wrote:

"Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers."

In a 1974 commencement speech, he put it this way:

"So I have just one wish for you — the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.”

In a 1963 lecture published in the book, The Meaning of It All, he wrote:

“No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated. Neither may a government determine the aesthetic value of artistic creations, nor limit the forms of literacy or artistic expression. Nor should it pronounce on the validity of economic, historic, religious, or philosophical doctrines. Instead it has a duty to its citizens to maintain the freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race.”

Federal money does not produce Feynmans. It points them in unproductive directions. Today the NSF pays out $5.5 billion a year, which is one-fifth of what the Federal government pays to colleges and universities. Total federal research spending runs upwards of $75 billion, perhaps 20—30 percent of the total throughout the U.S.

Decades after Feynman’s talk, the NSF and many government agencies have dug their claws deeply into nanotechnology and science. Conventional wisdom makes this support out to be critical for the economy. A Rand report reads: "The positive impact of research and development (u2018R&D’) investments of the federal government on the U.S. economy is widely recognized by experts and is credited with underpinning much of the nation’s economic growth during the 20th century." The Soviet Union made the same false claim. GNP grew and people stayed poor.

Growth in GNP is not the same as individual well-being. Investments in pyramids, space centers, moon voyages, and nuclear arsenals do not equate to greater happiness, progress in human well-being, or even take-home pay. The truth is the opposite of what the Rand report says. Force, taxes, subsidies, bureaucracies, races to get grant money, academic castles with moats, gold-plated laboratories, and distorted incentives — none of these are progressive institutions. Freedom is the condition that encourages more ideas, more valuable ideas, more useful ideas. Only freedom can encourage the expression of thoughts and actions that an individual values and that give value and meaning to others. The motivations that stimulate an individual to produce valuable ideas or actions are highly various, very diverse, deeply buried inside people, and hard to discern by the person himself or others. Outsize government grants and free lunches paid for by taxpayers divert and distort these motivations. They undermine creativity and value creation. They corrupt individuals and steer them away from themselves. They channel thought and activity into pathways that give outsize gains to a few and losses to many. Like any robbery, they harm the victim and the robber produces nothing productive.

The universities who receive scientific research money glamorize it as necessary to economic progress. Babies, red wine, word processors, the internet, dreams, recreation, art, and physical activity also affect growth. Shall taxpayers subsidize all of these and more? No one really knows what a statistic like economic growth means or is worth. Still less does anyone know the value of any item in adding to this statistic. No one is in a position to measure human happiness and rearrange taxes and subsidies to increase it. The effort to do so can only decrease happiness.

One may believe that humans are engaging in too little scientific thinking. After all, one is entitled to one’s illusions of knowledge. That is what it is, because there is surely no way to know how much scientific thinking is going on inside people’s heads and surely no way to measure the value of such thinking. To act on such a flimsy proposition and subsidize particular lines of scientific thought is sheer folly. If there is one thing we can be sure of, it is that subsidizing research projects retards well-being. It directly robs the taxpayers. They are made unable to express their preferences except through a collective and complex political process that is inferior to individual choice. The tax-funding insulates the chosen projects from accountability. It reduces the need to produce something of value that people will pay for voluntarily. University bureaucracies insulate science research from consumers and businesses. The scientific community’s answer to some of these objections is that to filter out poor projects and ideas, government grants are mediated and blind-refereed by panels of expert scientists. This may be so, but since they do not face the risks of an accepted project’s failure and since they do not value its cost as taxpayers might, this "objective" process does not get rid of the system’s ills.

Scientific research is like any other factor that goes into producing a good. It has a cost and a marginal value product. Left alone, it faces market discipline. Government interference with the markets for knowledge makes us worse off.

President Clinton set the nanotech invaders in motion. On January 21, 2000, a White House press release announced the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Clinton requested a $227 million budget, up from $123 million in the prior year. He named six government agencies as beneficiaries. Later more piled on. This year’s NNI budget is up to $1 billion. Many states have added more. Private sector investment exceeds that of the Federal government, but the federal and state nanotech invaders are pressing forward, aided and abetted by a science lobby.

Clinton twisted Feynman’s clear and accessible vision into a "new frontier" needing tax money. The press release read: "This initiative establishes Grand Challenges to fund interdisciplinary research and education teams, including centers and networks, that work for major, long-term objectives." The Federal Grinch again stole Christmas. He became a fake Santa Claus speaking bureaucratese and writing checks to scientists and their students.

The press release told who’d receive the invoices. The taxpayer will pay for large amounts of university research. The taxpayer will subsidize the costs of training new scientists. The taxpayer will keep paying for decades.

It might take 20 or more years to achieve the research goals, the release opined. This "is precisely why there is an important role for the Federal government," it argued. Ridiculous! If the payoffs of nanotech are that big, then even if they are 20 years off, there is an incentive to research them now. If not, then the research can wait. Resources are limited. Scientists and entrepreneurs may wish to pursue more pressing demands.

Feynman, foreseeing big payoffs, confidently expected bright young scientists to attack the problems and solve them. He also counted on the drives present in human nature. In contrast, the White House fretted about goals that were so far, far off that no one would want to work out the problems on his own. In this view, there were no such things as dedicated or curious scientists, no profit-oriented businesses, and no entrepreneurs. Government must force taxpayers to pay for scientific thought. Government must coordinate team efforts. Government must recruit and pay experts to make the nanotech revolution happen.

Strange that the press release failed to mention the other benefits of subsidies: government control, government growth, dependency of science on government, an image of government progressiveness, attracting voters, and money flowing to universities and scientists.

Danton said "L’audace; toujours l’audace!" Our government has the incredible audacity to suggest that without federal subsidies, nanotechnology will not progress scientifically and technically. Businesses are already proving this false, but government’s false advertising is endemic. Government steals from the taxpayer to set up scientific bureaucracies. It meddles. It stifles, distorts and retards the natural scientific process with infusions of federal money and direction. It absorbs science into government and undermines its ethos. It tampers with a valuable social enterprise and risks wrecking it. But none of this is enough. The government also must deplore the ability of science to act on its own. The government must advertise itself as the savior of scientific progress.

Scientific minds make discoveries and advances for their own reasons and motivations. The reasons are as varied as human beings are. They can be mystical, religious, oddball, deranged, monetary, playful, emotional, or inquiring. Scientists should be let alone, to play or work as they please, to work on basic or applied problems as they please. They should not be diverted or dammed up like a river. When a person works on a problem he chooses in his own way, there is no telling what the outcome will be. The free mind works in mysterious ways. It is common to work on one problem and be led into quite another. Serendipity occurs. Accidental discoveries occur.

Critics of the NNI observe that it is not even supporting Feynman’s vision of molecular nanotechnology (MNT):

"Despite this controversy, the Feynman vision of MNT continues to inspire students and researchers around the world, and the public increasingly expects MNT as part of their future. However, based on false arguments, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative has rejected MNT, thwarting students and crippling research. This is unfortunate, because research in pursuit of MNT offers fruitful areas for scientific discovery and practical application. It is time to reverse this obstructive policy, opening the door to progress toward understanding, developing, and guiding this revolutionary technology."

Unfortunately, government has the bucks to buy and pay for minds. Government can induce them to build nuclear bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Government can suck them into programs to land on the moon or Pluto. Government can direct research in directions it chooses. But who benefits and how much is lost? We have lost untold benefits of inquiry and science by forcing tax money into weapons and rocket development. We have shunted aside what scientists might be curious about or what individuals might truly value. We lose by force-feeding nanotech research. If government stays out of nanotech, entrepreneurs will still develop those new technologies and scientific advances that pay. There will be more and better science. Less capital will be wasted on pyramid-type projects with low or negative returns.

The government is placing bets on the unknown future of nanotechnology. This is the job of risk-taking scientists and entrepreneurs. Businesses know how to form research consortia. They can set up research labs and fund joint ventures. They will do more if government will get rid of capital gains taxes and stop worrying about anti-trust. They will do an appropriate amount of evaluation of risk if the justice system will handle liability issues properly. A company should be responsible for damages it causes and not be responsible for damages it does not cause. Liabilities should not be shifted to taxpayers. Once government gets into the act, private decisions get distorted. Private companies then have an incentive to lobby for federally funded research in order to benefit from the "free" discoveries.

In today’s tech industries, the best brains have trouble divining what consumers will value. They are currently competing over entertainment in the living room or on the streets. Apple guessed at iPod and won. Microsoft is guessing at Xbox 360. Tech investing is no place for government bureaucrats. Governments tax, subsidize and regulate. Tech R&D belongs to a different world.

Subsidized nanotech research makes us worse off. It ignores what we value individually. It ignores risk. It ignores the time value of money and costs of capital. Just as we have government-produced surpluses of food grains, nuclear weapons, missiles, wars, airport inspectors, people in poverty, bureaucrats, regulators, laws, ethanol, and paper money, we will have nanotech-engineered products that people would not willingly pay the unsubsidized price for. If coal workers were subsidized as scientists are, there’d be more coal companies, coal mines and cheaper coal, but taxpayers would have less money to spend on fuels they prefer and everything else. They’d end up worse off. Nanotech subsidies, if not entirely wasted on fruitless research, will end up with nanotech-produced products that do not pay their way.

At present there exist 45 university centers devoted solely to nanotech: four under NASA’s wing, 11 under the National Institutes of Health, 29 more under NSF, and three more under the DOD. These all obtain major research funding from the Federal government, sometimes supplemented by corporate sponsors. The universities rake off significant funds for overhead. The federal grants often help to support graduate students. This system of government support for science and universities is entrenched. It got a boost from the success of the Manhattan Project. Its modern history began with the promotion efforts of Vannevar Bush as early as 1940 for the National Defense Research Committee and later for government-funded research support in general. Its older history begins with the Morrill Act of 1862 that began land grant colleges.

Universities lobby their states and the Federal government, quite successfully. For example, the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act transferred invention rights to universities. While taxpayers pay the bills, individual researchers and universities capitalize on the research, thereby compounding the felony.

The working subcommittee of the NNI has produced a 120-page document titled "Nanotechnology: Societal Implications — Maximizing Benefits for Humanity." The NNI money is attracting not only physical but also social scientists. They want subsidies for their research on the social impacts of nanotechnology. Some want something far more dangerous than that. They want to control innovation every step of the way. In their own bloated and ornate language, here are a few items on their current wish list.

"…the government should support the implementation of training programs to equip underutilized scientists and engineers with nanotechnology-related skills."

"Federal support should be provided for K-12 curriculum development and educational programs on nanotechnology awareness…"

"It is also recommended that substantial investment be made to explore yet unanswered research questions related to the implications of nanotechnology on national security…"

"Investment in the National Nanotechnology Initiative must be sufficient, both in a broad range of research to advance the technology and in studies on the societal implications, so that the people of the world will gain the maximum benefit."

"Although there was disagreement over our ability to predict either future advances in nanotechnology or their societal implications, workshop participants generally agreed that the government should fund research to identify potential implications to the extent that such can be determined. Furthermore, the government should attempt to facilitate beneficial impacts and to mitigate negative impacts where they might be expected to emerge."

"The government should review research aimed at understanding the human health and environmental consequences of nanomaterials and adjust funding as necessary to address areas where more information is needed."

"The government should review the adequacy of the current regulatory environment for nanomaterials…"

"Increased capabilities and funding should be developed for conducting science and technology studies in educational contexts, in industrial contexts, and among the public. Workforce development should be undertaken across the full spectrum of job roles, not just among research scientists."

"The National Nanotechnology Initiative will proactively fund R&D for new nanoscale capabilities to ensure the maximum improvement of the quality of life at both the individual and societal levels. At the global as well as local levels, we must act wisely to improve the sustainability of the world around us. Four key areas are food, water, energy, and preservation of the environment."

"In order to preserve the environment, we must use nanotechnology to remediate air and water pollution, produce systems and materials that contribute to reducing resource consumption and waste production,…"

"…national security should consider the ease with which information is transferred, particularly in the academic environment…Collaborative networks in the sciences have expanded in size and grown increasingly international. Research is needed on the magnitude of the risk this relatively free exchange of ideas has on U.S. competitiveness and security."

"We need to anticipate and guide change in order to design the future of our choice, not just one of our making. We want society to be prepared for, though not necessarily control, the results of far-reaching research."

"There is a broad consensus that rational management of the innovation process, including nanotechnology innovation, must involve a variety of stakeholders beyond the scientific community, including representatives of the general public. The wide range of interests in society must provide value-based inputs that can be used to balance economic development needs with those of human health, the environment, and, more broadly, the quality of life."

Social scientists armed with the State’s power pose a great danger to society, more so than NSF subsidies. Judging from their rhetoric, there are those who are totalitarian elitists. They want to control the human being the way that a lion tamer controls the big cats. They view human beings as state resources. Humans for them exist to be trained, indoctrinated, manipulated, drugged if need be, and prepared for an occupation. Human endeavor for them is something to be rationalized, managed, measured, maximized, and controlled — by the social scientists. Public policy and society — formed and ruled by social scientists — take precedence over the individual. Their ideal world has no spontaneous order and no market and price processes. Society and humans are mechanisms one controls. They cover their tracks by adopting popular themes of democracy. They espouse themes of environmentalism, safety, health, and public rationality. They use these as wedges to justify and rationalize what they really want — social control.

We can hope that the development of nanotech and the private economy are so widespread as to be uncontrollable. We can hope that the government de facto ignores and does not enforce its many laws that can impact nanotech. We can hope that the thirst of the public for better living through nanotechnology will override the efforts of the Federal Grinch to steal nanotech. We can hope that the corps of expert grinches who wish to ride herd on nanotech will be satisfied with their money, rhetoric, and reports and leave the rest of society alone.

Hopes will not be enough. The grinches can throw plenty of sand in the gears. They have infiltrated any number of government agencies such as the EPA. They have comfortable bases in most universities in the land. They have the public’s high regard. Intellectuals and media speak in their favor. They have stolen a large slice of science. They did not steal the microcomputer, the computer chip, and the internet; but they won’t give up trying. They’d like to steal nanotech, and some of them wish to steal social life in its entirety, from birth to death.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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