Operating at tech's pace

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

of California.

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.

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