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NSF Commits $2M to Study Nanotech Implications

September 12, 2003

Two new grants, each greater than $1 million, have been awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the societal implications of nanotechnology — the emerging discipline that seeks to control and manipulate matter on a molecular scale. The grants are the largest awards the foundation has ever devoted exclusively to research in societal implications.

Nanotech has been considered by many in the tech-based economic development community to be a "transformative" technology, one that could change the way we live and work as profoundly as did the microchip or the automobile. To speed the development along, NSF and 16 other federal agencies are supporting a nearly $1 billion-a-year National Nanotechnology Initiative.

Davis Baird, a philosopher at the University of South Carolina and principal investigator on one of the two grants, is expected to set up an ongoing dialog on the various uses of nanotechnology. Just as researchers need to consider societal implications from the start, Baird states in a press release, "ethicists and other scholars need to understand what's possible in the lab."

The second grant will go to the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), where sociologist Lynne Zucker and her colleagues will study how newly acquired knowledge about nanotechnology makes its way from the laboratory to the marketplace. One of the major products of the UCLA study will be an extensive database on small startup firms in the nanotechnology arena and what factors influence how well ideas succeed in the marketplace.

"It will be a resource for scientists, journalists, policymakers — everyone," Zucker said. "It will help us understand how the knowledge is transmitted, what facilitates that transfer, what blocks it, and what works well."