Christopher Newfield, “Avoiding Network Failure: The Case of the National Nanotechnology Initiative”

Christopher Newfield discusses the role of the federal government in correcting “market failure” by acting as an investor of last result for high-risk technologies that may have large eventual payoffs for society, yet which require many years—or decades—to develop. He uses the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) as a case study for this form of government research. Drawing on David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old, he emphasizes that the amount of money spent nationally on R&D does not correlate with a higher GDP. Instead, imitation, or the systematic development of old technologies or technologies invented in other countries, appears to be a more significant driver of GDP (think of the US during the 30 years after WWII, or China in recent decades). Further, Newfield emphasizes that innovation and development exist only within networks involving various governments, traditions, firms, and—crucially—the users of technology. The NNI (put into effect in 2000), a massive federal initiative, garnered wide bipartisan support primarily through “discussions of nanotechnology’s social benefits,” yet these were often reduced to projections of economic competitiveness.

Despite these eagerly-professed future benefits to the public, the NNI was founded in an entirely top-down manner, without any public input. Even worse, Newfield implies, are the imagined technological outcomes themselves (which are speculative, given that the NNI mostly funds basic scientific research). He quotes one such proposal, The Communicator, which he compares to dystopian science fiction mind-control devices. If the initiative has failed to provide a convincing vision of the public’s eventual benefit, it has done even worse when it comes to publicly-accessible information regarding its concrete results. Newfield notes that descriptions of actual projects funded by the initiative (at least within DARPA) are ridiculously vague and largely fail to articulate any progress (significant blocks of text are merely copied and pasted year to year). Instead of these (non) narratives, federal agencies prefer to visualize progress via patent-filing charts, which usually demonstrate dramatic growth curves, and are thus of use to policy makers, but have little meaning or concrete implications for the general public. Newfield thus locates a primary failure of large-scale government initiatives in their failure to incorporate the public, either in the decision-making process, in considerations of application, in the transparency of the initiative over time, or in articulated narratives “from bench to bedside.”


Link to Article


David Edgerton’s book “The Shock of the Old” is heavily quoted. A shorter article dealing with the same themes, minus the rich historical examples, “From Innovation To Use,” is included here.

Patrick McCray’s “From Lab to iPod” details the development of “spintronics,” an early nanotechnology that found great success in the electronics market, and played a large justificatory role in the formation of the NNI.

Newfield further examines the absence of public funding from discourses of innovation in “Risky Business: Why Public is Losing to Private in American Research.”

Tagged with:

1 Comment

  1. […] research, specifically in relation to the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in “Avoiding Network Failure: The Case of the National Nanotechnology Initiative” Tagged with: darpa • nanotechnology • narrative • NNI • public • […]

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.