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Nanotech Export Controls

A Foresight Nanotech Institute Policy Issues Brief

by Jacob Heller and Christine Peterson

Nanotechnology will likely bring advanced drug delivery methods, superstrong light-weight materials, and the ability to heal damaged natural environments. However, these same technologies could also be used in warfare: drug delivery systems could be turned into bioweapons, strong materials could be made into armor, and nano-environmental "healers" could wreak havoc on ecosystems if tweaked. There is a growing concern that these technologies could fall into irresponsible hands and abused. To deal with that prospect, U.S. policymakers are already considering placing export controls on certain nanotechnologies — attempting to prevent them from ever leaving the country. This "solution", by restricting trade and research collaboration, may have disastrous effects on growing nanotech industries, innovation, and the United State’s lead in nanotechnology research and development. For these reasons, although some export controls will be necessary, Foresight believes they should be approached with great caution.

Export controls are not new, and there is already a legal and policy framework that deals with other weapon systems and technologies that would most likely apply to nanotechnology. For example, the U.S., in the current political environment, would not allow the sale of nuclear weapons technology to Iran. Nor will the U.S. allow the sale of nanoweapons to states viewed as aggressors.

The issue is complicated when technologies are "dual-use": they can be used both for commercial and military purposes. Today, the U.S. does not allow the sale of certain pharmaceuticals to specific foreign countries, because although they could be used to cure disease, they also contain compounds that can be used in the production of chemical or biological weapons. Even the video-game console PlayStation 2 was subject to Japanese export controls, since some feared that its processing power could be used to break encryptions.1 Some fear that the same could be true of many nanotechnologies, such as the ones listed above: although they do have benign purposes, they can also be used with malignant intent and destructive force. Because nanotechnology industries are in their infancy, we simply do not know how possible it is to reverse-engineer nanotech products and weaponize the technology. Until we do, it would probably be impractical to strictly enforce dual-use export restraints.

Already the prospect of export controls is having a chilling effect on nanotechnology industries. Nanotechnology businesses, afraid that they won’t be able to sell their products at a global level, are considering moving their companies outside of the United States. If this were to happen in large numbers, the effect on the United State’s position in nanotechnology would be severe. It would also negate the effect of the U.S. export control regime, since companies outside of the United States would presumably be able to sell their products to whomever they wish, subject only to the laws of the countries in which they are based. It is for this reason that the President’s Export Council (PEC), upon studying the issue of nanotech export controls, concluded that they would have to be "multilateral in order to be effective".2

Even if nanotech companies do not move, restrictions on exports could have a dampening effect on the field, and put U.S. nanotech companies at a competitive disadvantage. Export controls restrict trade and commerce, which means that U.S. companies would not be able to profit fully from their innovations, discouraging further research and development. More troublesome is that they could reduce global collaboration and research-sharing, especially with up-and-coming nanotechnology industries in countries like China. Policymakers must be aware of this cost to innovation and the economy, a concern that was also echoed by the PEC.3

Some specific export restraints on nanotechnology may prove necessary. It would not be prudent to share technology with non-allies that is already in a weaponized form, or can easily be used for destructive purposes. Significant research into what those technologies would be may be necessary, so nanotech companies could know in advance which types of products would be subject to restricted trade.

However, because of the harm they can cause to the United States’ nanotech industry and its leadership position, export controls should be approached cautiously. The risks that nanotech may fall into irresponsible hands must be balanced against the enormous benefits that U.S. nanotech inventions can have for the global economy, quality of life, and society in general.

1C|Net News. "Japan slaps export controls on PlayStation 2". April 16, 2000. http://news.com.com/2100-1040-239322.html

2Marriott Jr., J.W. President’s Export Council Letter to President Bush Concerning Export Controls on Nanotechnology. December 6, 2005. http://www.ita.doc.gov/TD/PEC/nanotech.html

3Ibid.

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