Bounding Nanotechnology: Deconstructing the Drexler-Smalley Debate

author: Sarah Kaplan, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
.administrator: Michelle Sagan Gonçalves, University of Massachusetts Amherst
published: Feb. 25, 2009,   recorded: October 2008,   views: 10646

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Nanotechnology” has been touted by many as one of the most critical emerging technological fields today – offering promises of new treatments for cancer, new computing approaches, etc. However, determining what nanotechnology means, the nature of its benefits and its risks, whose research counts as nanotechnology, and who gets to speak on behalf of those who do nanotechnology – essentially, the process of drawing boundaries around nanotechnology as a field – has turned out to be a highly political process of constant negotiation with significant implications for funding, legislation, risk management and public support. In this presentation, I will focus on the construction of one of the most high-profile moments of controversy about nanotechnology’s possibilities: a debate between K. Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley, published as a “point-counterpoint feature” in Chemical & Engineering News. Drawing upon scholarship in science studies concerning boundary work as well as in organizational theory on the role of entrepreneurial actors in the emergence of institutions, we seek to broaden analysis of the debate to include important institutional and organizational contexts – particularly the role of science journalism and editorial decision-making.

Sarah Kaplan is Assistant Professor of Management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. She is also is co-author of the bestselling business book, Creative Destruction (Currency/Doubleday, 2001) which looks at the challenges of performance in dynamic markets. She received her Ph.D. from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Her research investigates the role of interpretive processes in shaping technology evolution and firm response to technical change in the biotechnology, telecommunications, personal digital assistant and, most recently, nanotechnology fields. Prior to her academic career, she was a management consultant for nearly a decade with McKinsey & Company where she put innovation tools and techniques to work in a broad range of companies in many industries such as medical devices, retailing, steel, pharmaceuticals and consumer packaged goods.

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