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

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