Open Source Nanotechnology

What is OS Nano?

Open Source Nanotechnology starts from the belief that most of the new ideas, tools and materials that are discovered and engineered in nanotechnology could take an infinite number of paths. They need not lead to better weapons, bouncier tennis balls, or tiny self-replicating robots; they can lead to better drinking water, better soil or cheap, non-harmful, non-invasive diagnostics. The problem today is that the former are more profitable than the latter, and so few scientists or engineers spend time thinking about them, while people around the planet continue to demand them. What if these roles were collapsed? What if everyone were encouraged not only to use nanotechnology, but to innovate as well? OS Nano provides a way to do that by contributing to a commons in knowledge and technique that is legally free and open to everyone.

OS Nano provides direct access to the most “upstream” components of nanotechnology as possible. It is a new way of meeting the demand for citizen inclusion, public dialogue and public assessment of technology. But unlike most schemes for including “the people” in “the science,” open source nanotechnology does not make a distinction between scientists and the people. Everyone, in our opinion, can be a scientist, and everyone has a duty to be “the people.” By the same token, we don’t believe that everyone is a scientist or part of the public in the same way. Some people are experts in chemistry, but do not work at a university; some people are experts in areas not usually recognized as relevant to nanotechnology. Some people care deeply about particular social problems that directly affect them, some people care at a distance about the plights of others. The current system of innovation, especially in the US, does not capture all that special expertise, much less channel that deep concern into the projects that need it. OS Nano makes a wager that there is a better way.

Why Now?

The success of Open Source and Free Software has been as models for free exchange of ideas in the service of innovation , for collaborative high-tech development, and for the creation of legally sound “commons.” These successes have inspired people in realms far from software, including film, music, law, and most recently biology (examples are listed here). Whether or not the models of Free Software work in other realms is still an open question, but the experiments are well underway.

In the case of nanotechnology, there are multiple reasons to conduct this experiment. First off, for the people who might need it most, OS Nano can be an alternative to conventional technology transfer–one that potentially allows for much faster, much more robust lateral transfer of know-how and ideas between potential users of nanoscience and nanotechnology. Second, there is a need for nanotechnology that addresses issues of social justice, environmental health and safety, and intellectual property balance, and not only issues of cost, efficiency and profitability. In order for both corporations and independent actors to pursue such issues in an open and effective manner, an open source-style project is necessary. Third, for scientists, for the sheer theoretical challenge of “vernacularizing” a science–a problem that asks scientists to think about their work not only within the confines of a laboratory, but outside it as well, and to approach it with the same rigorous, creative, competitive zeal as they do in the lab. We think that our first project of creating magnetite nanocrystals using household materials demonstrates the tip of an iceberg.

You can download and read a poster from a recent GRC conference to learn more…

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