Bounding an emerging technology: Para-scientific media and the Drexler-Smalley debate about nanotechnology

Sarah Kaplan, Rotman School, University of Toronto, and Joanna Radin, History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania,

Social Studies of Science, August 2011 vol. 41 no. 4 457-485

Abstract: ‘Nanotechnology’ is often touted as a significant emerging technological field. However, determining what nanotechnology means, whose research counts as nanotechnology, and who gets to speak on behalf of nanotechnology is a highly political process involving constant negotiation with significant implications for funding, legislation, and citizen support. In this paper, we deconstruct a high-profile moment of controversy about nanotechnology’s possibilities: a debate between K. Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley published as a ‘point—counterpoint’ feature in 2003 in Chemical & Engineering News. Rather than treat the debate as a stand-alone episode of scientific controversy, we seek to understand the forces that enabled it to be seen as such an episode. We introduce the term ‘para-scientific’ media to make explicit how certain forms of publication intervene in the dissemination of technical knowledge as it travels beyond its supposed site of production. The existence of para-scientific media is predicated on intimate association with formalized channels of scientific publication, but they also seek to engage other cultures of expertise. Through this lens, we show that Drexler and Smalley were not only independent entrepreneurs enrolling Chemical & Engineering News as a site of boundary work; members of the para-scientific media actively enrolled Drexler and Smalley as part of a broader effort to simplify a complex set of uncertainties about nanotechnology’s potential into two polarized views. In this case study, we examine received accounts of the debate, describe the boundary work undertaken by Drexler and Smalley to shape the path of nanotechnology’s emergence, and unpack the boundary work of the para-scientific media to create polarizing controversy that attracted audiences and influenced policy and scientific research agendas. Members of the para-scientific media have been influential in bounding nanotechnology as a field-in-tension by structuring irreconcilable dichotomies out of an ambiguous set of uncertainties. We conclude with thoughts about the implications of this case study for studies of science communication, institutional entrepreneurship and the ethics of emerging technologies.

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