Tiny Particles Spark Big Debate

New report focuses on social and ethical issues of nanotechnology

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Issues with a “nano” prefix have been reported on in Chemical Processing for many years now. Most recently, these have focused on safety issues and include the European Union’s concern about the lack of toxicity data on nanomaterials, Lloyd’s of London’s fears for long-term health risks associated with them, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment’s criticism of their use in foods (www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2008/009.html).

Now the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) (http://www.nanotechproject.org/), Washington, D.C., has waded in with  a 63-page report entitled ‘Nanotechnology: the social and ethical issues.”

The PEN, established in 2005 by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts, is dedicated to helping business, government and the public anticipate and manage nanotechnology’s possible health and environmental implications. In the report’s introduction, Director David Rejeski writes: “Too often, discussions about the social and ethical issues surrounding new technologies are treated as afterthoughts, or worse still, as potential roadblocks to innovation. The ethical discussions are relegated to the end of scientific conferences, outsourced to social scientists, or generally marginalized in the policymaking process. The goal of this paper… is to clearly place social and ethical issues within ongoing debates on the responsible development of nanotechnologies.”

“It is crucial to address social and ethical issues now as we consider both the substantial potential risks of nanotechnology and its possible significant contributions to our well-being and environmental sustainability,” adds Ronald Sandler, a philosophy professor at Northeastern University, Boston, and author of the report.

The report spotlights ways  nanotechnology intersects with governmental functions and responsibilities, including science and technology policy, as well as research funding, regulation and work on public engagement. 

The first section considers technology, ethics and government. It highlights five social and ethical issues associated with emerging technologies: 

1) They’re determinate, so they can be clearly identified;

2) They’re immediate — so it isn’t too soon to begin considering them;

3) They’re distinct, so they aren’t reducible to other aspects of responsible development;

4) They’re significant — in other words, crucial to responsible development of nanotechnology and;. 

5) Such issues are actionable, so steps can be taken now, including by those in government, to address them.


From there, it describes the salience of these issues and draws attention to them by articulating what they are, why they matter and what’s involved in addressing them. So the report:


• Identifies the crucial roles of ethics in responsible development of technology;
• Dispels common misconceptions about the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies;
• Provides a typology of the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies and identifies several issues within each type;
• Discusses in detail one paradigmatic issue of each type to illustrate significant features of the issues within the type; and
• Emphasizes how social and ethical issues intersect with government functions and responsibilities.

Eight further chapters deal in more detail with misconceptions about social and ethical issues, social context issues, contested moral issues, and form of life issues.

Summing up, the report describes the effort to develop effective responses to social and ethical issues  associated with emerging nanotechnologies as “inadequate — stymied by misconception of what the issues are, why they are crucial to responsible development and how to proactively address them.”

“Emerging nanotechnologies offer a unique opportunity to make social (not just technological) progress through broad, innovative, forward-looking responsible development. These are opportunities not to be missed,” concludes the report.


The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology is considering legislation that will strengthen federal efforts to learn more about the potential environmental, health and safety risks posed by engineered nanomaterials, as well as the ethical and societal aspects of the technology, according to the PEN.

Nanotechnology, it points out, promises to usher in the next industrial revolution and is the focus of an annual $1.5 billion federal research investment. It adds that the new bill (HR 554) is almost identical to legislation that passed the House last year with overwhelming bi-partisan support by a  407 to six vote. Although the Senate was expected to mark up similar legislation, lawmakers ran out of time during the session.

"Every emerging technology offers us a new opportunity to engage stakeholders in a social and ethical debate. The nanotech revolution is still beginning and we still have time for an open and public discussion of its consequences, both intended and unintended. Hopefully, this paper will provide a framework for thinking through some of those impacts, particularly as the legislative debate on reauthorizing the federal nanotech program moves forward,” notes Rejeski.

To view a full copy of the report, visit: www.nanotechproject.org/news/archive/ethical_evaluations_nanotechnology 


Seán Ottewell is Editor at Large for Chemical Processing. You can e-mail him at sottewell@putman.net.

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