IRG 1-4: Innovation and Research at the Nanotechnology-Biology Interface

(Joseph November)


The recent history of science shows that federal agencies like the NSF and the National Institutes of Health are fostering greater connections between the physical and life sciences. In the past decade, NIH has become an increasingly important and enthusiastic sponsor of nanotechnology development, with nanotechnology now listed as an integral part of NIH’s Roadmap for Medical Research. Striking parallels exist between earlier federal efforts to harness new technologies, such as the use of computers for life science and for medical applications during the 1950s and 1960s, and recent plans to similarly exploit nanotechnology. Both past and recent efforts possessed ambitious goals and shared the explicit aim of establishing “bioengineering”. Both efforts toward bioengineering envisioned living systems as artifacts and approached researchers as manageable engineers rather than as scientists dependent on serendipitous breakthroughs.


This research project provides a comparative analysis of efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to transform biology and medicine through digital computer techniques, with efforts in the past decade to reform the life sciences through nanotechnology. The focus is on innovation at the bio-nano interface, along with the development of discussions about the nanotechnology's health applications.  The analysis is based on extensive archival research at repositories in the Washington, DC area, including the NIH, the National Archives’ collections, and historical materials available via the NSF and the NNI. We also conduct recorded interviews with personnel and grantees connected to both early computerization and nanotechnology, as well as persons at NSF and other agencies that fund nano-bio research. This examination of federal agencies’ support of exploratory research technologies helps bridge a gap between two productive but hitherto largely disconnected areas of inquiry: the history of technology and the history of support for biological, medical, and life science research at the NSF and NIH.