Not that Much Room? Nanotechnology, Networks and the Politics of Dancing

22 Pages Posted: 17 May 2006

See all articles by Ian R. Kerr

Ian R. Kerr

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section

Goldie Bassi

Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP


Although there is a broadening social interest in the development of powerful and general nanotechnology, the public discourse to date has largely avoided a comprehensive examination of its social dimensions. Instead, discourse has focused on what is and is not scientifically possible. In this regard, much attention has been paid to the feasibility of Richard Feynman's famous 1959 vision, i.e., whether it is possible to manufacture complex molecules atom-by-atom. Feynman's vision has been fiercely debated in scientific literature and the popular press.

This article examines the most famous version of this debate: a set of exchanges between Richard Smalley and Eric Drexler. The authors argue that, while this politically-charged debate has been extremely influential within scientific circles, the traditional point/counter-point approach to scientific dialogue does not provide an adequate basis for building normative or regulatory structures for nanotechnology. Although the development of sound social policy about a given technology must certainly commence with considerations about what is presently foreseeable, the authors suggest that it is also important to contemplate possibilities that are not necessarily congruent with today's forecasts. The authors further propose that scientific forecasting is itself an insufficient social safeguard against a technology said to have the potential to revolutionize our ability to control and manipulate matter. In examining this claim, the authors demonstrate the power of scientific networks to shape policy agendas, control the development and implementation of new technologies, and influence the manner in which they are ultimately regulated. In response, the authors recommend that policy makers embrace a foresight model that aims to develop a broader network of social participants in their deliberations about the future regulation of nanotechnology.

Keywords: nanotechnology, science policy, scientific forecasting, foresight methodology, regulation of technology, scientific discourse, Richard Smalley, Eric Drexler, Richard Feynman

Suggested Citation

Kerr, Ian R. and Bassi, Goldie, Not that Much Room? Nanotechnology, Networks and the Politics of Dancing. Available at SSRN:

Ian R. Kerr (Contact Author)

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section ( email )

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Ottawa, K1N 6N5
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Goldie Bassi

Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP ( email )

1 First Canadian Place
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Toronto, Ontario M5X 1G5
416-369--6690 (Phone)
416-862-7661 (Fax)

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