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The Foresight Institute’s Eric Drexler, who coined the word “nanotechnology” in the 1980s and is one of the field’s leading evangelists, has complained for years that the term has been watered down to the point of uselessness by researchers and companies who apply it to almost anything small. Now a legal complaint against Merrill Lynch, of all companies, may help to restore the definition to its original meaning – technologies that work on the scale of a nanometer, or a billionth of a meter, or less. The New York Times reports today that investment firm Asensio & Company has asked New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer to investigate Merrill Lynch “for including many companies that have little or nothing to do with nanotechnology” in the Merrill Lynch Nanotech Index, a list of 25 publicly traded companies introduced on April 1. Indeed, the index includes drug- and chemical-discovery companies such as Pharmacopeia and Symyx whose only claim to the “nanotechnology” label would seem to be that their products are made of atoms. A Merrill Lynch spokeswoman told the Times that the company is “in the process of performing a thorough and diligent inquiry” into the matter.

Download Merrill Lynch’s research report on its new nanotech index here.

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