Operating at tech's pace
- By Jack McCarthy, Paula Shaki Trimble
- May 01, 2000
The government is pursuing ways to keep policy and the public in tune with
revolutionary advances in science and technology.
Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) gathered government, industry and academic
leaders last week to discuss whether and how the federal government can
get ahead of the high-tech curve.
Stirring the discussion is the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology
and information technology. "We are at the embryonic stages for development
[for the technologies]," said Samuel Venneri, associate administrator for
NASA's Office of Aero-Space Technology.
The space agency has set up a subcommittee to NASA's Advisory Council
to examine the implications of technology that will be available in five
to 10 years, Venneri said, testifying April 24 before Horn's House Government
Reform Subcommittee at NASA's Ames Research Center.
But decisions about such technologies should be examined on a national
scale, Venneri said. "I don't think any one government agency is structured
to deal with these difficult questions now," he said. Venneri proposed an
organization similar to the White House Office of Science and Technology
Policy that would have expertise in policy, science and engineering.
Steven Popper, associate director of the Science and Technology Policy
Institute — part of nonprofit think tank Rand Corp. — suggested that federal-level
policy development committees could examine ethical and policy issues relating
to the new technologies.
Nanotechnology — which can manipulate atoms to create structural materials,
electronics and sensors — is under development and being considered along
with biotechnology for technological applications, Venneri said. The minute
scale of nanotechnology will result in much smaller components than had
ever been anticipated, he added.
As advances in medicine and computing begin to rely on the same technologies,
federal funding is needed to train scientists early on to have experience
with physical science and IT, said Sussane Hutt-ner, executive director
of the Industry-University Cooperative Research Program at the University
Gaining the trust of the public is also crucial. "Ethical questions
are only part of the problem," said Charles Shank, director of the Lawrence
Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California.
Such trust is difficult to attain when addressing issues of gene manipulation.
The government's sponsorship of such research must provide people with enough
information to make informed judgments, Shank said. When dealing with issues
of fear, such as those involved with the Human Genome Project, researchers
must have patience, he said.
"The critical distinction between biological systems and current computers
is that [computers] may seem to come to life when we use them, but they
can only adapt, evolve and think to the extent we anticipate the environment
and operating conditions they will encounter and build in appropriate response
mechanisms," Venneri told the committee.
McCarthy is a San Francisco-based reporter for IDG News Service.