The third-largest legislative body in the English-speaking world is (drum roll) New Hampshire's, with 24 in the Senate and 400 in the House of Representatives. None of those 400 is in it for the money—the job pays $100/annum (plus gas mileage). About the only people who can serve in that ponderous assembly are the independently wealthy and the retired. Even so, many of our legislators are really outstanding—and too many others are grandstanding. They run for office because they want to introduce bills supporting their personal hobby-horses (e.g., outlawing communist liquor and requiring all household heads to own a firearm and 10 rounds of ammunition). I just hope that the subject of nanotechnology never comes up.
The notion of using legislation to control an entire technology, especially one that's in its infancy, makes me wince. The opening shots have been fired and reported on here (Who's Afraid of the Nano Bad Wolf?). And assorted news briefs of recent date have made it clear that the impetus to govern a field of scientific and engineering endeavor is not going to die the natural death it should. I queasily anticipate rounds of deliberations on Capitol Hill, led by grandstanding participants whose understanding of nanotechnology was gleaned from executive summaries.
What will these legislators talk about, anyway? For starters, the term, "nano," along with micro and mega, has become extremely fuzzified. Of course it has a scientific meaning of anything × 10-9. A nano gentleman sperm whale would be 15 nanometers long.
When a law is concocted in haste in response to a particular event or some nebulous anxiety about What Could Happen, that law is certain to be a bad one. Examples abound. Bullfighting is illegal in Maine. In some states you can't hang men's and women's underwear on the same clothes line. Do not import piranhas into Texas.
So let's see where nano legislation might lead. Say you're working with some little flakes that used to be bigger flakes before you ground them down to a dimension that's 10-8 of their original size. That's certainly on the teensy scale, but not technically nano. The dark shadow of nano legislation should by rights pass harmlessly over your lab. Whew!
But uh-oh! Maybe "nano" will be redefined to mean anything really, really small. And will that class of anythings be restricted to the manmade? Or will cell culture work be called to testify before some committee?
Why Pick on the Little Fellers?
The thing is, nanotechnology is just that. It's not yet an industry, although that's the direction it's headed. For a good account of its current status I recommend an article in today's Washington Post, "For Now, Consumer Nanotech Concentrates on the Little Things".
The time for legislative oversight will be when products based on nanotechnology are on the market in numbers approaching those of breakfast cereals. They can then be regulated and the consumers kept safe by the same federal agencies that protect us from pollutants in the air, earth, and water. From fraudulent claims made by the makers of nostrums that promise physical well-being and facial rejuvenation. From toasters that set the wall on fire.
One more bit of suggested reading is a summarized report from the Pacific Research Institute. In it, Sonia Arrison, director of Technology Studies at PRI, is quoted as saying: "Nanotechnology holds much promise for advances in a number of areas such as material science and medicine, but the nascent industry faces threats from those who believe government should solve problems before they occur." I am solidly behind Ms. Arrison. Politics and technology have no business duking it out. The upshots are bound to be bad law and researchers forced to play "Mother, May I?" Everyone looks silly and nothing moves forward.