It may seem hard to believe, but early in the Bush administration some speculated that the president’s most important and historically significant act might be his Aug. 9, 2001, decision to allow federal funding of research using certain existing stem cell lines. Of course, that piece of analysis had about a one-month shelf life: The World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks came just 33 days later, leading to Bush’s subsequent decisions to launch wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet decades or centuries from now, who knows what decisions or actions future generations might deem most significant?
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If humans are living radically longer and healthier lives thanks to stem cells, maybe that summer speech from Crawford, Texas, will seem more momentous. Or if society is getting energy from supercheap and superefficient solar cells and living in lunar colonies constructed from materials many times stronger than steel yet weighing a fraction as much, people might point to Bush’s signing yesterday of the $3.7 billion 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act.
It’s hard to weed out the sober predictions about nanotech’s impact from the hype. Over and over, I have read stories claiming that the market for nanotech products could reach $1 trillion by 2015. Yet that same number appears in a March 2001 report from the august National Science Foundation. Right there on Page 3, the report predicts that nanotech will have a "projected total worldwide market size of over $1 trillion annually in 10 to 15 years." True, the NSF’s definition of nanotech is broad: As long as a product is touched at some point along the manufacturing process by nanotech, it counts as a nanoproduct. Also, much of that $1 trillion guesstimate is based on "personal communication" with industry experts rather than formal, detailed studies. Still, if even more conservative estimates are correct, that $3.7 billion investment Bush announced will be repaid many times over.