Friday, December 1, 2017

When Nanotechnology Shrank: How Communities Police the Boundaries of Their Field

It is ironic that I should write a post on how communities of science police the boundaries of their field shortly after writing a blog post on how nations hurt themselves by policing their boundaries. But a paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Stine Grodal has exactly that theme and some important conclusions. Plus, it is about nanotechnology, something we have heard about and think will shape the future of the world but don’t understand well.

In fact, what I just wrote echoes the start of the nanotechnology field. It was a term coined and advocated by futurists, it was and still is claimed to be a source of advances in science, technology, and business that will change individual lives and society, and it has been redefined many times. The redefinitions of the field are important because they are partly a consequence of these futurists and others with an interest in the term, especially the government, grappling with the question of how best to define the boundaries of the nanotechnology field so that it attracts the right kind of support from others and makes the kind of advances that are desired.

Nanotechnology became a very successful field, in part because of government intervention in the traditional way: giving out money to those engaged in research on nanotechnology. The other source of success was interest in nanotechnology companies from venture capitalists, who expressed their interest the same way: they provided money. This initiated an identity crisis because it soon became clear to the futurists that there were many in the world with little interest in their vision but significant interest in money and other resources that were becoming available, and they had the ability to fit their activities into the loosely defined field of nanotechnology. After all, entrepreneurs are well known for creativity in the pursuit of funding, and scientists are (this is less well known) extremely creative in the pursuit of funding.

The result was a backlash. The creators of the field, the futurists, looked at all the newcomers and their flexible definitions of nanotech, and thought they were changing the meaning of the term and were pursuing different futures than the one originally envisioned. Government officials saw a flood of funding applications and realized that the topics were too spread out to provide any kind of consistency unless the funding agency enforced it. Government interest in nanotechnology started with the futurists’ initiatives, so officials could ask the futurists for help in making a stricter definition of the field. The futurists were pleased to help, given that the field was losing clarity and they were losing funding as competition increased. Interestingly, even some interlopers such as scientists and entrepreneurs started rethinking the meaning of nanotech, seeing it as too trendy a term and not well enough connected to their work.

Nanotech started out as a word with a clear symbolic vision and few adherents. Money was added, and it became unclear and populated with many newcomers, members of peripheral communities. This makes sense. The next step is the surprise, because everyone in the field started looking around and seeing a need to sort things out. The founders and funders of the vision stayed, and the newcomers started leaving. That’s how nanotech shrank, and it could well be how many other fields expand and contract over time.

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