Nanoscience + Ethics = Nanoethics; Societal and Ethical Implications (SEI)
David W. Mogk, MONT Project, Montana State University
Nanoethics addresses the societal and ethical implications (SEI) of the advancement of nanotechnology/science as it impacts humans, society and the environment. As nanotechnology/science advances, it is important to also consider the associated short-term and long-term benefits as well as the limits and potential risks and hazards of nanotechnology. Khan (2006) recommends that nanotechnology stakeholders should strive to achieve four social objectives:
- Developing a strong understanding of local and global forces and issues that affect people and societies
- Guiding local/global societies to appropriate uses of technology
- Alerting societies to technological risks and failures
- Developing informed and ethical personal decision making and leadership t solve problems in a technological world
The breadth and scope of nanoethics spans domains from the personal to planetary. Nanoethics issues include aspects of personal value systems (as people and scientists), and responsibilities to the profession, to society, and to planetary stewardship.
- Nanoethics and Self: what are the internal attributes of and values that establish the ethical foundation required to successfully prepare for and contribute to a career in nanotechnology/science?
- Nanoethics and the nanotechnology/science professions: what are the ethical standards expected of nano-practitioners if they are to contribute responsibly to the community of practice expected of the profession? What responsibilities lie beyond "the dominant belief system that the only ethical responsibilities of researchers revolve around the "Holy Trinity of Research Ethics": lab safety, data integrity, and respect for intellectual property (e.g., not plagiarizing the ideas or words of others and giving all contributors credit in publications in proportion to their respective contributions to the achievements in question)?" (McGin, 2010).
- Nanoethics and society: what are the responsibilities of nanotechnology/science researchers to effectively and responsibly communicate the results of their research to inform society about issues related to their work in order to protect the health, safety, and economic security of humanity?
- Nanoethics and Earth: what are the responsibilities of nanotechnology/science researchers to provide good stewardship of Earth based on their understanding of how natural, incidental and engineered nanomaterials may ultimately impact natural planetary Earth, environmental, biological and social systems (see Hochella et al., 2019)?
Should nanoethics be distinguished as a new branch of ethics? Many scholars such as Allhoff and Lin (2006) argue that "some [ethical] issues are emerging that appear unique to nanotechnology, namely the new environmental, health and safety (EHS) risks arising [from] nanomaterials." However, McGinn (2008, 2012) argues that these examples are simply new instances of ethical issues that are "...new instances of risks of the same sort raised by other technological materials, but they are not a new kind of ethical issue. They are new examples of a well known category of risks that various scientific and technological materials, products, and processes have posed, are posing, and will pose in the future: viz., risks to environmental safety and human health...that the nanotechnology-related ethical issues claimed to be new (and sometimes unique) amount to old ethical wine in new technological bottles". Nonetheless, the emerging fields of nanotechnology/science does appear to embrace two new important aspects to ethics (McGinn, 2010):
- Nanotechnology is addressing societal and ethical implications (SEI) up front, and as an integral part of nanotechnology research programs; not an afterthought. McGinn (2010) reports: "Some of nanotechnology's key institutional promoters, e.g., NSF, have supported the upstream exploration of nanotechnology's "social and ethical implications" in parallel with pursuit of basic nanotechnology research. The rationale appears to be to protect the field against the possibility of strong negative public reaction downstream if nanotechnology were to be implicated in serious social harm through negligent or irresponsible practitioner action, regulatory oversight, or manufacturing practices. Put differently, upstream study of ethical (and social) issues related to nanotechnology is viewed by some forces that support it as an investment in stable public funding support for nanotechnology R&D work in the future."
- Nanotechnology researchers have embraced a high degree of ethical responsibility for their work and their impacts on society. In a survey of nanotechnology researchers (n=1037), McGinn (2008) reports: "For most respondents, the ethical responsibilities of NT researchers are not limited to those related to safety and integrity in the laboratory. Most believe that NT researchers also have specific ethical responsibilities to the society in which their research is done and likely to be applied. NT appears to be one of the first areas of contemporary technoscientific activity in which a long-standing belief is being seriously challenged: the belief that society is solely responsible for what happens when a researcher's work, viewed as neutral and merely enabling, is applied in a particular social context. Survey data reveal that most respondents strongly disagree with that paradigmatic belief."
For reference, McGinn (2008, 2010) cite Leon Lederman: "Our lame but perhaps time-honored response is that scientific knowledge is not good or evil; it is enabling. Modern science, however abstract, is never safe. It can be used to raise mankind to new heights or literally to destroy the planet. As democratic government spreads, it is the people and their representatives who must use the power provided by science. We give you a powerful engine. You steer the ship!" (Lederman LM, The Responsibility of the scientist. NY Times, pp A15, July 24, 1999). From McGinn (2008): "This response profile suggests that in the nanotechnology community a new paradigm of ethical responsibility in technoscientific research may be emerging to challenge the one reflected in Lederman's conventional views. Nanotechnology appears to be one of the first fields, if not the very first field, of contemporary technoscientific inquiry in which this challenge is being posed and played out. What is reasonably clear is that most NNIN respondents do not exclude nanotechnology researchers from the list of groups whose members they believe have ethical responsibilities toward society at large."
This world-view of nanotechnology researchers is very much in line with AAAS (1998, accessed at Resources for Research Ethics Education) that states, "If the U.S. is to respond effectively to the challenges of the 21 st century, we must find ways to reorganize our science and technology enterprise to
- address tomorrow's needs and aspirations'
- maintaining global sustainability;
- improving human health;
- addressing economic disparities;
- understanding our place in the universe;
- promoting peace and security, and
- directing the products of technology toward the betterment of society, nationally and worldwide."
The AAAS report (March 2015), A Preliminary Inquiry Into the Perspectives of Scientists, Engineers and Health Professionals, shows a remarkable convergence in scientists' affirmation of the social responsibility among the STEM disciplines, as can be seen from the following table:
Many Questions, No Concrete Answers
Many of the ethical issues that will confront nanotechnology/science will be situational, contextual, and contingent on many competing factors. It is a gray world, with no (or few) black and white answers. So, these issues have to be examined and addressed from numerous perspectives:
- Responsible Conduct of Research: was the nanotechnology/science conducted according to the accepted standards and norms of the profession?
- Responsible Conduct of Scientists (Professionalism): did the behaviors of the researchers involved ascribe to the highest standards of professional conduct of the profession?
- Ethical Decision-Making: can the steps taken be defended in a rational way to peers, professional boards, institutions, and public authorities?
- Beneficence: "do no harm and maximize the benefits for all"?
As nanotechnology advances, practitioners typically ask "can we do this?" Perhaps it is a better question to ask: "Should we do this? Do we have the wisdom to use and control these new technologies for the ultimate good of humanity?" (This also recalls statesman Adlai Stevenson's famous quote about unleashing the forces of the atom: "Nature is neutral. Man has wrested from nature the power to make the world a desert or make the deserts bloom. There is no evil in the atom; only in men's souls"). Perhaps we should sometimes take a bit of a step back and engage self-reflecting and self-moderating behaviors to think through potential implications and consequences.
With this context, here is a sampling of ethical issues that nanotechnology/science researcher may encounter. Are you prepared to address, contribute to, defend: (these issues may not be unique to nanotechnology/science, but they may be increasingly prevalent):
- As nanotechnnology/science has the potential to have huge (possibly unexpected and irreversible) impacts on humanity, is there a need for some sort of Institutional Review Board that has oversight authority for at least some types of nano-research (similar to IRB review of human subject research)? Who decides what type of nano-research is "in bounds"?
- Nanotechnology and privacy issues; micro-sensors are everywhere; who has the right to gather and store personal information collected through monitoring devices? As with other information technologies, do individuals have the right to control our own nano-data?
- Release of engineered and incidental nanomaterials to the environment; whether intentional or incidental, who will take responsibility for impacts on the operation of natural systems, environmental consequences, impacts on biota and human health once nanoparticlres are irretrievably released to the environment? What do we do about unintended releases of incidental nanoparticles to the environment--who has responsibility, will there be liability?
- Nanotechnology, Intellectual Property, and Patenting; as there is a strong size-dependency of physical and chemical properties of nanoparticles, what does this mean regarding IP and patent rights if exactly the same material has different properties based solely on particle size?
- Use of Nanotechnology in military defense applications as agents of war (recall the tortured reflections and responses to the WWII Manhattan Project)?
- What are the impacts of access of nanotechnology for a) developing countries, and b) people from underrepresented groups? Are we headed to a cultural situation where we have a nano-divide (similar to the current digital divide)? Consider the cost of a new smart phone (pick your favorite brand).
- What are the moral implications related to use of nanotechnology to increase the longevity of human life?(e.g., based on delivery of nano-pharmaceuticals, monitoring, therapeutics, diagnostics....)? What are the implications for quality of life, costs of long-term medical care, ....? What about physical performance enhancements made possible by nano-interventions
- What ethical lessons can be learned from other emerging technologies that have spawned controversies in the recent past(e.g., Stem Cell Research, Genetically Modified Organic products,...)?
- Is there a regulatory vacuum that needs to be addressed regarding nanotechnology? Nanotechnology is advancing so fast that it is difficult for legislation and public policy to keep up. How can we best protect the safety of humanity while recognizing the intellectual property rights of companies that have invested in the research and development? How should liability be assessed? How can we avoid litigation?
- Are there sufficient safeguards in place for nanotechnology/science labs to ensure that these are safe workplaces for all workers?Who has responsibility, who ensures compliance?
- To what extent do nanotechnology/science researchers need to be cognizant of risk perception, management, and mitigation?
- As nanotechnology/science represents a new kind of transdisciplinary, convergent science, does this lead also to emerging ethical issues that may arise due to conflicting "cultures" (expectations, standards, norms) from different disciplines? How will these conflicts be resolved?
- Similarly, nanotechnology/science is an increasingly international enterprise; what steps must be taken to ameliorate inter-cultural conflicts based on attitudes about personal attributes: race, gender, sexual orientation, physical, sensory and cognitive disabilities, and other personal attributes of people in a diverse workplace?
- Nanotechnology/science is increasingly competitive, and has the potential for creating huge economic impacts; what safeguards need to be in place to protect confidentiality of research, and intellectual property rights? In a competitive environment, what can be done to prevent "short cuts" in development and testing of nanomaterials? (Consider contemporary concerns about adequate testing of COVID-19 vaccines that are in development).
Resources and recommended readings regarding Ethics and Nanotechnology can be accessed at:
- The National Nanotechnology Initiative (Nano.gov) site on Ethical, Legal, and Societal Issues
- The National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure program has numerous nodes that address Societal and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology
- National Coordinated Infrastructure-Southwest. "The NCI-SW SEI program builds on the research and programs developed at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS), an NSF funded Center at Arizona State University that ran from 2005-2016. The goal of the SEI program is to make available the tools that were initiated at CNS to a wide range of researchers. The program does that through two major initiatives:
- SEI User Facility – Scholars at Arizona State University have been working for over a decade to develop a number of tools that can help scholars better study the social aspects of emerging technologies. We are making those tools – including things like scenario planning, laboratory engagements, collaborating with natural scientists and engineers, engaging with the public, and museum collaborations – available to other scholars through an SEI User Facility. Scholars interested in being introduced to these tools and finding ways to integrate them into their research are invited to visit ASU for a visit (of lengths from 1 day to several months) to learn from faculty and postdocs.
- Science Outside the Lab – Every summer NCI-SW sponsors a week long "Science Outside the Lab" program on nanotechnology. Science Outside the Lab brings a small cohort of graduate student scientists and engineers to Washington, D.C. to explore the relationships among science, innovation, and policy. The goal is to expose participants to as many different viewpoints as possible and help them understand how people and institutions influence and learn from science. Participants will meet and interact with congressional staffers, lobbyists, funding agency officers, regulators, journalists, academics, museum curators, and others to learn how and why nanotechnology and other emerging technologies are funded, regulated, shaped, critiqued, and publicized. Applications for the program are usually requested each winter.
- Center for Nantoechnology in Society--Arizona State University; extensive resources for research education, outreach and much more. See their site on Nanoquestions: an FAQ for Nanotechnology
- Southeastern Nanotechnology Infrastructure Corridor: "The aim of the SEI work at SENIC is to increase attention to application of nanotechnology, while still attending to social and ethical implications. This work is based at Georgia Institute of Technology. There are two main SEI activities at SENIC: (1) nanoinformatics, which involves the development of nanotechnology publication and patent databases for use in informing and guiding SENIC, and (2) design and exercise development with attention to social and ethical activities important to nanotechnology that parallels the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) process. Nanoinformatics – Georgia Tech assembles and analyzes datasets based on Web of Science publication and PATSTAT patent information. These datasets have been obtained using a search strategy described in an article published in Scientometrics, 2013 Capturing new developments in an emerging technology: an updated search strategy for identifying nanotechnology research outputs. We use this information to inform SENIC participants about trends in nanotechnology so that they can stay abreast of future scientific and technological needs. We also use this information to help broaden participation in SENIC by targeting potential new users in the region.
- Research Ethics Program University of California, San Diego: "The Research Ethics Program was founded in 1997 to promote research integrity and to provide training in responsible conduct of research for the UC San Diego campus. The Program provided a foundation for research on research integrity, resources for teachers of research ethics (Center for Ethics in Science and Technology). Although a focus on ethics in nanotechnology is new to UC San Diego, plans are underway to add this topic to the research ethics resources website, and at least one program is now being scheduled through the Ethics Center. Programs of the Ethics Center are captured by UCSD-TV, which reports that on average, subsequent views of each program are in excess of 125,000.
- NNCI Texas Nanofabrication Facility--"LeeAnn" Kahlor, Ph.D., is the Director of Social and Ethical Implications (SEI) for the NNCI Texas Nanofabrication Facility at the University of Texas at Austin. Kahlor also is the Associate Director of the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations at UT. Kahlor's team conducts qualitative and quantitative research on 1) scientists information seeking and sharing related to SEI, 2) perceived barriers to the integration of SEI into the workplace, and 3) how organizational roles may work against such integration. The team's goals are to publish initial findings, while concurrently developing and piloting an evidence-based SEI training module that can help integrate SEI into the workplace in meaningful ways".
- Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network--David Berube leads the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology (SEIN) team for the RTNN, a partnership between NC State University, Duke University, and UNC Chapel Hill. The RTNN SEIN team conducts research on "Team Science," writes a blog called [link https://www.rtnn.ncsu.edu/resources-for-society/nano-hype-blog 'Nano Hype'] and offers a variety of materials to help scientists, teachers, students, and the general public better understand the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology.
- Center for Nanotechnology in Society--University of California at Santa Barbara (NSF-supported). and Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology
- The Nanoethics Group--Cal State San Luis Obispo; excellent resources including exploration of The Issues.
- Ethics Instructional Resources--from the collections of nanoHub developed at Purdue University.
- Environmental, Health, and Safety Issues are comprehensively addressed by Nano.gov, and provide resources and fact sheets from NIST, NIOSH, OSHA, EPA, USDA, USGS, NIEHS, and FDA.
Journal Articles and Books of Interest to Ethics and Nanotechnology/science
(This is not an exhaustive compilation-- but a place to start for explorations of ethics and nanotechnology with students in your research lab and classrooms).
- Allhoff, F., Lin, P., Moor, J., and Weckert, J., 2007, Nanoethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Nanotechnology, Wiley, 416 pp.
- Allhoff, F., & Lin, P. (Eds.). (2008). Nanotechnology & society: Current and emerging ethical issues. Springer Science & Business Media.
- Allhoff, F., Lin, P., & Moore, D. (2009). What is nanotechnology and why does it matter?: From science to ethics. John Wiley & Sons.
- Arnaldi, S., Ferrari, A., Magaudda, P., and Marin, F., 2014, Responsibility in nanotechnology development, Springer.
- Bainbridge, W. S., 2010, Governing Nanotechnology: Social, Ethical and Human Issues, Springer Handbook of Nanotechnology, Springer, p. 1867-1883.
- Bennett-Woods, D., 2018. Nanotechnology: ethics and society. CRC press.
- Berne, R. W., 2005, Nanotalk: Conversations with scientists and engineers about ethics, meaning, and belief in the development of nanotechnology, CRC Press.
- Khan, A.S. ed., 2012. Nanotechnology: ethical and social implications. CRC Press.
- Lin, P., Moor, J. H., & Weckert, J. (2007). Nanoethics: the ethical and social implications of nanotechnology. John Wiley & Sons.
- Nanoethics ethics for technologies that converge at the nanoscale. 2007. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
- O'Mathuna, D. P. (2009). Nanoethics: Big ethical issues with small technology. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Teaching Nanotechnology/Science and Ethics
- Barakat, N. and Jiao, H., 2010. Proposed strategies for teaching ethics of nanotechnology. Nanoethics, 4(3), pp.221-228.
- Berne, R.W. and Schummer, J., 2005. Teaching societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology to engineering students through science fiction. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 25(6), pp.459-468.
- Eosco, G.M., Tallapragada, M., McComas, K.A. and Brady, M., 2014. Exploring societal and ethical views of nanotechnology REUs. NanoEthics, 8(1), pp.91-99. https://link.springer.com/article
- Hoover, E., Brown, P., Averick, M., Kane, A. and Hurt, R., 2009. Teaching small and thinking large: Effects of including social and ethical implications in an interdisciplinary nanotechnology course. Journal of Nano Education, 1(1), pp.86-95.
- Jones, M.G., Blonder, R., Gardner, G.E., Albe, V., Falvo, M. and Chevrier, J., 2013. Nanotechnology and nanoscale science: Educational challenges. International Journal of Science Education, 35(9), pp.1490-1512.
- Mitcham, C., Heller, L., Nan, W., Qin, Z., Packard, C., Holles, C., Hudson, D. and Rolston, J., 2013. Nanotechnology ethics and policy education: Learning and sharing across boundaries. Journal of Nano Education, 5(2), pp.180-187.
- Powers, T.M. and Shah, S.I., 2013. Teaching a Course on Ethics in Nanoscience. Journal of Nano Education, 5(2), pp.142-147.
- Rasmussen, A.J. and Ebbesen, M., 2014. Why should nanoscience students be taught to be ethically competent? Science and engineering ethics, 20(4), pp.1065-1077.
Some Societal Issues Related to Nanoscience
- Bainbridge, W. S., 2013, Converging technologies for improving human performance: Nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science, Springer Science & Business Media.
- Bainbridge, W. S., and Roco, M. C., 2006, Progress in convergence, Blackwell Pub. on behalf of the New York Academy of Sciences.
- Chen, H., Roco, M. C., Son, J., Jiang, S., Larson, C. A., and Gao, Q., 2013, Global nanotechnology development from 1991 to 2012: patents, scientific publications, and effect of NSF funding: Journal of nanoparticle research, v. 15, no. 9, p. 1951.
- Roco, C., and Bainbridge, W. S., 2002, Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance NANOTECHNOLOGY, BIOTECHNOLOGY, INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND COGNITIVE SCIENCE.
- Roco, M. C., 2003, Broader societal issues of nanotechnology: Journal of Nanoparticle Research, v. 5, no. 3-4, p. 181-189.
- Roco, M. C., 2011, The long view of nanotechnology development: the National Nanotechnology Initiative at 10 years, Springer.
- Roco, M. C., and Bainbridge, W. S., 2002, Converging technologies for improving human performance: Integrating from the nanoscale: Journal of nanoparticle research, v. 4, no. 4, p. 281-295.
- Roco, M. C., and Bainbridge, W. S., 2005, Societal implications of nanoscience and nanotechnology: Maximizing human benefit: Journal of Nanoparticle Research, v. 7, no. 1, p. 1-13.
- Roco, M. C., Harthorn, B., Guston, D., and Shapira, P., 2011, Innovative and responsible governance of nanotechnology for societal development, Nanotechnology Research Directions for Societal Needs in 2020, Springer, p. 561-617.