Mihail Roco is a sometimes-polarizing figure in the development story of nanotechnology. On the one hand, he gave shape and purpose to what became the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and led it through its early formative years, but on the other—especially among those who support a vision of nanotechnology involving molecular manufacturing (MNT)—he was at least one of the agents behind moving US funding away from MNT and towards material science. A sin some still have not forgiven him for.
Whichever side of the fence you may be on that characterization, it’s hard to deny that Roco has been one of the most influential figures in nanotechnology, not just for the US but for the world. Roco was the man behind turning a scattering of papers in condensed matter/solid state physics or chemistry into a national initiative. In doing so, he unwittingly—or not—launched an international nanotechnology arms race, which has seen at least 35 countries jump on to the bandwagon since the NNI was started.
Make no mistake, this “race” is no joke. There are billions of dollars at stake and national reputations seem to be built up on success in crossing the vague finish line before some other country.
Beyond mere reputation or pride, countries—including the US—believe that by pumping money into nanotechnology (which up to this point has largely gone to building new research facilities) they will create for themselves an economic zone, a Silicon Valley of nanotech. There’s no sense in trying to explain that Silicon Valley was a complicated recipe that is probably nearly impossible to duplicate; governments are giving the money away so why not build a new microscopy lab in the middle of nowhere.
On top of everything, this past week we witnessed what may be the height of the nanotech arms race with the arrest and indictment of a nanotechnology scientist from Sandia National Labs, who is accused of sharing research information with the Chinese.
So after unleashing this billion-dollar nanotech arms race, Roco now is urging collaboration in nanotech to provide the push the field needs to progress.
“International collaboration in nanoscale science and engineering is essential at this moment because the field is growing rapidly with different focuses and multidisciplinary breakthroughs in different countries, and the synergism of such contributions determines faster and more efficient development,” said Roco in an interview with Korea Herald when he was attending the 9th Korea-US Nano Forum held at Hanyang University in Seoul.
Well, yes, of course, and it’s about time somebody said it. It probably couldn’t have come from a better source either. Many have said that it took the virulent anti-communist Richard Nixon to open detente with China. Perhaps it will take the man who created national nanotechnology initiatives to urge that nanotechnology research is better served when national borders come secondary to scientific inquiry.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.