Interdisciplinary Research Group 1 - Origins, Institutions, and Communities

Shortly after the founding of the CNS, a review in Nature called nanotechnology a “subject with an existential crisis.” As a vast, sprawling multi-disciplinary endeavor, the author wondered, what holds it together? Perhaps nanotechnology was simply materials science or physics in a new package. Perhaps even worse, as some cynics suggested, nanotechnology simply offered scientists new paths to secure research funding. A third interpretation was that nanotechnology is constituted by sociological phenomena such as institutions and social networks rather than a unified scientific field of investigation. Questions such as these early in the 21st century about what nanotechnology “really” was and whether or not it radically departed from earlier research initiatives offered a fascinating intellectual stimulus for IRG 1 when it formed in 2005.

From the outset, IRG 1 focused its activities on a simple yet durable assumption: reliable knowledge about nanotechnology’s contemporary social, economic, and policy implications must be based on a clear, coherent, and comprehensive understanding of its historical and social context. This required looking at nanotechnology’s history at multiple levels of analysis: scientists’ careers, research communities, instrumentation, national and state policy, and the role of public imagination and interest in “visionary engineering” ideas. We recognized that nanotechnology borrowed from people, organizations, and methods that existed before the founding of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000. Those borrowings shaped how nanotechnology is done, perceived, and regulated.

Our primary goal was ambitious. It was an experiment in doing recent history. Through a series of interconnected case studies, we wanted to produce the framework for a comprehensive and holistic narrative of nanotech’s historical trajectory. We envisioned this history as a series of narratives that, taken together, would trace the half-century arc of nanotechnology’s history. This comprehensive view eventually includes the study of nanotechnology as done in both the physical as well life sciences as well as nanotechnology in a broader global context. We wanted this history to be accessible, valuable and relevant not only to historians, but also a “usable past” that could inform colleagues in other humanities and social science disciplines, as well as scientists, engineers, and policy makers.

This history began with nanotechnology’s origins in the communities of physicists, chemists, and materials scientists in the 1950s and 1960s. It then followed key individuals and instrumental developments at places like Bell Labs and IBM in the 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s, visionaries promoted the future importance of nanotechnology as major discoveries such as the buckyball and inventions such as the scanning tunneling microscope emerged from mainstream science laboratories. The announcement of major state research and development initiatives in the United States and other countries circa 2001 fostered the creation of a vast transnational infrastructure for doing interdisciplinary research in the 21st century.

Throughout more than ten years of research, we emphasized three interrelated themes: origins, institutions, and communities. We saw these as the critical resources from which scientists, business people, and policy makers fashioned the contemporary nanotechnology enterprise. Broadly defined, these resources included not only scientific and technical knowledge, but also scientific communities and institutions, organizational practices in universities, corporations, and government agencies, and broader context such as international security threats and industrial competition. Our combined research efforts revealed that, despite its seeming novelty, nanotechnology was and is not a new area of technological development. Rather, it continued and built upon existing institutions, research tools, and discoveries. Our group paid particular attention to the history of nanoelectronics as a possible path to the continuation of Moore’s Law and to the importance of new institutions and interdisciplinary research in nanotechnology. Seen most broadly, since 2005, our group explored and established the historical contexts for the emergence of nanotechnology as a potent new research field, a central component of American science policy, and a frequent ingredient in popular imaginings of future technologies. At the same time, we remained sensitive to “hidden histories” of nanotechnology that did not appear in the standard narrative of its development. We saw a continual need to move away from the limitations of this basic story toward more complex and nuanced understandings of nanotechnology’s past and current context. 

For historians and other STS scholars, the study of nanotechnology presented a series of challenges and opportunities. The opportunities derived from the chance to work collaboratively with other historians and with practitioners of other disciplines and to study the emergence of a largescale technological enterprise. Because much of this story was recent history, we had access to a wealth of evidence not traditionally available to historians. The Neugebauer quote – although written in a different context – that opens this report offers a wonderful justification of the type of work we wanted to engage in. The challenges related, in part, to the nature and preservation of the historical record and in part to the vastness of the subject itself. The ephemeral nature of the documents and sources available sometimes proved problematic – there are no formal archives of nanotechnology for scholars to consult – and required especially creative solutions. This, in effect, made the “first drafts” of history we prepared even more relevant as the sources and evidence we collected will provide research materials for future scholars to use as they revise and add to other work.