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Many believe that nanotechnology will become one of the most significant scientific and industrial transformations of the 21st century. Like electricity, automobiles, and computers, nanotechnology may change our economy and our jobs, our air and our water, our play and even our relationships.
At CNS-ASU, we believe that something with the potential to change our lives in so many different ways should be carefully examined. It is important to think about whose ideas and choices will guide the design and application of nanotechnology. What roles will scientists, engineers, corporations, consumers, regulators, and citizens play? Who may ultimately benefit from the pursuit of nanotechnology, and who may lose out?
These questions are not easy to answer.
Over the past several years, many science museums have begun to introduce nanotechnology to their visitors. This list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) comes from questions that visitors in some of those museums have asked about how nanotechnology might influence our future. These questions are not about the scientific and technical underpinnings of nanotechnology, but rather they are about nanotechnology in society.
There are no certain or absolute answers to these questions. Many of them depend on our beliefs, values, and hopes. We at CNS-ASU have offered our best – but still evolving – answers below.
We believe, in the end, that we will all have some influence over the future of nanotechnology. We value questions and answers, discussion and dialogue among all of those whose lives may be influenced by a nanotechnological future. We hope these reflections on the topic will help us all think through the issues of nanotechnology in society a bit more clearly.
Who created the Nanotechnology in Society FAQ?
This FAQ was created by the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University – a research, training and outreach center dedicated to understanding the societal (ethical, legal, economic, environmental, social, etc.) aspects of nanotechnology and the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net) – a national community of researchers and informal science educators dedicated to fostering public awareness, engagement, and understanding of nanoscale science, engineering, and technology.
The National Science Foundation funds both these groups, and work on this FAQ has been supported by NSF cooperative agreement #0937591 (CNS-ASU) and #ESI-0532536 and 0940143 (NISE Net). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this FAQ do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
If you have additional questions you would like addressed, or have any comments to the questions and responses appearing on this page, please contact us. Thank you.
Most responses to this question would explain that people need to know fundamental science related to nanotechnology – the kind of information you might learn in an eighth-grade science class. For example:
But being an informed citizen is not about understanding a simplified version of the science behind nanotechnology. (And that’s a good thing, because the vast majority of the American public does not perform well on such quizzes when asked in telephone surveys!)
While understanding some of the science is important, it is equally important to think about the social, political, environmental and economic contexts in which nanotechnology will develop. For example:
It is perhaps most important to think about where you, and where other people, stand on some of big questions that applications of nanotechnology will plausibly raise:
By thinking about issues like these, and encouraging others to think about them, you can be prepared for a broader debate – and political decision making – on them.
The short answer is everybody, including you. Because nanotechnology may have such broad influence, a similarly broad set of individuals and groups should be involved in making decisions about how – and even to what extent – it should be developed, applied, and controlled.
Public discussion around nanotechnology has already been more open than for previous high technologies like atomic energy or genetic engineering. Governments around the world, funders of science and technology, regulators, corporations, investors, insurance companies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), scientists, inventors, social researchers, standards agencies, lawyers and health and safety experts are all having their say in how nanotechnology emerges.
Beyond these usual suspects, however, there are increasing opportunities for ordinary citizens to have a voice in these debates. In Europe, activities such as consensus conferences, citizens’ juries, and public dialogues allow for open discussions of new technologies that can feed into decision making. In the US, processes such as the National Citizens’ Technology Forum work in a similar way. Individuals can also speak with their state or federal representatives, submit responses to proposed rules by regulatory agencies, get involved with NGOs and business groups, and participate in museums and other informal science education activities around the future of nanotechnology.
Fifteen years ago, genetically modified (GM) foods caused global concern. While there was great hope they could help, for example, make food more abundant and more nutritious with a lower environmental impact through reduced pesticide use or greater salt tolerance, GM foods were not without controversy. Others argued that we could not know the potential dangers in genetically modifying food crops and that the kinds of modifications that were introduced would only benefit large farms, would reduce consumer choice by squeezing out organic or non-GM crops, and increase the corporate control of food.
One key lesson learned from the GM food debates relates to public opinion. Many scientists and policy makers believed that the people who resisted the use of GM foods did so because they did not understand them. “If only those folks knew the science the way we did,” they thought, “then they would be more enthusiastic.” But social research showed that where there was public resistance to GM foods – and resistance developed very differently in different countries – it was tied to the broader concerns about control, cultural connections to food and nature, and unintended consequences, and not to the extent of one’s scientific knowledge.
Many folks working with nanotechnology today assume that public concerns are simply due to a lack of knowledge about the technology. But as we learned from GM foods and as we are learning from social research about nanotechnology, technical knowledge among the public is not the biggest factor in the acceptance or rejection of a new technology.
There are great hopes that nanotechnology can make energy cheaper and cleaner, and a lot of money for research and development follows these hopes. Many people argue that advances in nanotechnology will make energy less expensive and easier to access. Nanotechnology could, for example, make solar energy much more efficient by designing solar cells that can capture more of the energy in sunlight, or by making the installation of solar energy as easy as spraying on a coat of paint. Nanotechnology could also lead to batteries that are less toxic and longer lasting. Lighter, stronger nanomaterials could be used in products from cars to containers, reducing fuel consumption. Others point out that we already have simpler technologies like multi-paned windows, insulation, and energy efficient light bulbs that can make energy cheaper right now, and that we should focus on such proven technologies rather than uncertain, future nanotechnologies.
Many simple changes in the way we use our existing resources would have a much larger effect in the near term than the applications of nanotechnology under development. But the global challenge of clean and affordable energy production is so great that we need to research and develop nanotechnology for energy uses in the future. Indeed, the challenge is so great that some believe that even if nanotechnology can deliver on its energy promises, we are still on an unsustainable course into the future.
Many of the first applications of nanotechnology have been in cosmetics like skin creams and sunblocks. In the United States, there is little regulatory control over what manufacturers may put in such products and what safety testing must be done before such products are marketed. Many nano-enabled drugs are currently under development, and some are even being tested – as required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – for their safety and efficacy.
Scientific testing (in cell cultures, in animals, and in people) can sometimes tell us that there are benefits and risks to using nano medicine and cosmetics. However, the question of whether or not to use such a product usually involves figuring out if the benefits outweigh the risks, or if the risks outweigh the benefits. Sometimes governments decide that a product is too risky, for example, that a proposed new drug has too many severe side effects to allow it on the market. In other cases, we have to decide for ourselves whether we are willing to take on added risks to get the benefits of the product.
People are usually willing to take more risks with medicines than with cosmetics because, with medicines, the benefits are greater and clearer, or they simply have no other choice. Cancer patients, for example, submit themselves to debilitating treatments because their disease is so dangerous, and they are therefore even more receptive to the promise – and the risk – of new nanomedicines. The benefits of cosmetics are usually less profound, but the risks are similarly unknown. In Europe now, nanoparticles contained in cosmetics must be called out in the list of ingredients on the package. In the US, there is currently a debate over whether companies should be required to label their nanotechnology products to help give the public an informed choice.
For the most part, companies in the United States have a great incentive to make their products safe, and there are standards, advisories, guidelines and regulations issued by government regulatory agencies, trade associations, advisory bodies and the like to help them do so. They are subject to government penalties and loss of market share if something goes wrong, as happened recently with safety questions about Toyota automobiles. Even if companies follow all the rules, they can still be sued if something goes wrong.
That being said, corporate executives have certainly been known to put their own interests above the best interests of the public. The Enron scandal and more recent banking practices that contributed to the housing market bubble and collapse are among the most visible examples.
Firms that use nanotechnology face a few extra challenges that make creating safe products more difficult. First, not all of the dangers of nanotechnology are known right now. Second, neither governments nor other organizations are producing many safety standards, regulations, or advisories aimed specifically at nanotechnology, and therefore companies aren’t getting much guidance. Third, many firms that use nanotechnology don’t produce the nanomaterials themselves, but simply repackage nanomaterials produced by other companies. When multiple firms are involved in this kind of chain, it can be difficult to determine who is and should be responsibility for something bad happening.
While there is fear that premature regulation or over-regulation may squelch the economic and consumer benefits that could come from nanotechnology, there is also fear that an accident or a bad corporate actor could instigate a public backlash against nano. Still others worry that in a rush to get economic and consumer benefits, firms and consumers alike will promote short-term gains over long-term sustainability. Just like with asbestos or Superfund sites, our children and our children’s children may be left with consumers having suffered from nano products or environmental damage from nanomaterials long after the immediate benefits have been realized.
There are few regulations specific to nanotechnology, including informational ones like labeling. In Europe, cosmetics with nanomaterials must identify them on a label. In Berkeley, CA, any users of nanomaterials must tell the city what nanomaterials are in use and what is known about their environmental health and safety characteristics. Given the uncertainty over the safety of nanomaterials, advocates of labeling usually point to two arguments. First, an ethical argument that manufacturers are obliged to let consumers know if a product contains nanotechnology in order for them to make an informed choice about even unknown risks. And second, an economic argument that markets work most efficiently when consumers have full information about the products they are choosing to purchase.
There are also other serious barriers to labeling products that contains nano-sized particles. First, many products have had nanoscale features for decades, and a labeling requirement might mean labeling many products that we have accepted as safe for years. Second, actually determining if a product has features at the nanoscale can be tricky. Often, manufacturers don’t know, and determining, for example, if a product would have to be labeled for nanoscale materials in one dimension (e.g. graphene), or in two dimensions (e.g., carbon nanotubes), or in three dimensions (e.g., nanosilver particles) is very difficult. Third, such a labeling requirement would be exceptionally difficult for the government or watchdog organizations to monitor.
Yes, although no one is entirely sure yet which ones. We know that some nanoscale materials that have been around for a long time—such as particulates in diesel exhaust—are dangerous. We know that some nanomaterials may be dangerous because their structure makes them behave like other dangerous materials we know about, such as some carbon nanotubes, which seem to behave like asbestos. We know that some nanomaterials are toxic simply because the stuff they are made of are toxic, like quantum dots made from chromium. And we know (for example with silver), that some nanomaterials are biologically active, unlike larger scale versions of the same substance—but we are often unsure of the extent of their activity and whether it might be dangerous to humans, plants, animals, or ecosystems. We are also only now beginning to get a handle on the extent to which consumers, workers, or others might be exposed to nanomaterials in the air and water, through manufacturing processes, during the use of nano products, or through their disposal, recycling, or decay.
Scientists are conducting a good deal of research on the potential hazards of nanotechnology, both in the US and in other countries, but much more could be done. Regardless of how much research gets conducted, however, we can unfortunately never know the full effects of a technology until it is put into use. As a result, all new technologies come with dangers, and nanotechnology is no different.
But just because something is dangerous doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it. We use a lot of dangerous things in our everyday lives, but we have systems in place to manage those dangers. For instance, gasoline is highly toxic and flammable, and so there are lots of regulations about how it can be produced, transported, and sold. There is still a chance for accidents to happen, but these steps help make our use of it much safer.
Absolutely. No one can fully predict the implications of a new technology, and it’s likely that nanotechnology will have many repercussions that we’re not expecting.
It’s important, however, that our recognition of the necessity of unanticipated consequences doesn’t become an excuse for ignoring the future. While no one can fully predict the future of a technology, collectively we can reflect on what kind of future technologies we are working toward and what kind of consequences analogous technologies have had in the past. Just because we cannot predict the future with certainty doesn’t mean that we’re powerless. We often have a good enough idea about plausible scenarios to discuss the possibilities and decide what is at stake.
Dealing with risk is tricky. One approach is to weigh a technology’s benefits against its risks – often without having an absolutely clear and precisely measurable sense of those benefits and risks. So if we don’t yet have enough research to tell us whether carbon nanotubes act like asbestos in our lungs, it is exceptionally hard to calculate the risks working with them. Similarly, many benefits of a new technology will only occur in the future.
In addition to the direct risks and benefits (how much environmental or ecological damage a new product might cause versus how many jobs its production might create) there are also more indirect risks and benefits. For example, controlling risks through regulation has its own costs (of oversight, compliance, and enforcement) and, perhaps, benefits (of information gathering and sharing and collaboration or trust-building). Sometimes risk analysts attempt to include the costs of foregone benefits as a risk in their calculations.
There are also different strategies for managing risk. In Europe, the “precautionary principle” is popular. The idea is that we should not let a lack of knowledge about potential risks convince us that a technology is safe to use. This sounds prudent, but it can slow down innovation by raising the bar for demonstrating a product’s safety before it is widely used. As a result, we use this approach in the United States in very specific situations. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration requires pharmaceutical companies to demonstrate that a drug is safe and effective before it can be marketed. This policy results in a relatively safe drug supply, but also one in which it takes significant amounts of time and money to bring a new drug to market.
When we think that something is probably safe, we might use the “attentive principle.” There is some possibility that something could go wrong – so we watch vigilantly to catch any dangers before they become a crisis – but we don’t require a demonstration of safety before the fact.
Science fiction authors and even some scientists have imagined tiny robots that could operate without human direction and consume materials from their environment to create more of their kind. In apocalyptic visions, these “autonomous nanoscale robots” or “nanobots” are usually imagined consuming carbon or silicon in order to replicate and, if their programming or other controls were to fail, they could consume (in the case of carbon) all the organic material – trees, animals, us – on the planet.
While nanobots get a lot of play in far-future visions, many scientists believe that they are technically impossible or, if not, still don’t deserve our current attention. There are certainly more immediate, if more mundane, risks to pay attention to. But given the scale of the consequences, it is probably worth some discussions of how one might control nanobots should they become technically feasible. Not only would it be a most horrific surprise, but perhaps through thinking about this risk for nanotechnology we learn something from, or contribute to, discussions about the creation of novel organisms in molecular and synthetic biology.
The short answer is, “you don’t.” There is a traditional, idealized vision that scientists advance knowledge for the public welfare. The reality is more complex.
Providing public funding is one way to help ensure that scientists work for the public benefit. About one-third (about 33%) of the money spent to research new ideas and develop innovations (“R&D”) in the United States comes from the federal government – a little less than $150 billion each year. Most of that R&D is meant to support the missions of particular government agencies. For example, the National Institutes of Health funds biomedical research in the interest of public health, the Department of Energy funds research seeking cheaper, more sustainable energy supplies, and the Department of Defense and Homeland Security fund military and security research to promote national security. The federal government also creates programs that address broader goals than any individual agency can pursue to steer research in the public interest. The National Nanotechnology Initiative is strongly oriented toward economic competitiveness, while the Global Climate Change Research Program is oriented toward understanding climate change and its implications. Such missions and programs give scientists general guidance about what kind research serves the public interest.
But individual research projects that scientists work on are not necessarily tightly coupled to broad public goals. In other cases, the primary reason for conducting the research is not to pursue such public missions but is simply for the inherent excitement of discovery and exploration or for the sake of curiosity. There are concrete benefits even to such curiosity- or excitement-driven research (particularly in educating students), such benefits tend to be much longer-term than other kinds of research. Many economists believe that there are huge long-term benefits to the economy from investments in R&D. But generally speaking, we don’t have a lot of knowledge about how to understand what concrete benefits flow from research. (And we don’t have a great deal of knowledge about how to understand what concrete risks flow from research, either.)
One-third of the funding for R&D comes from the federal government. The other two-thirds comes almost entirely from private companies. Firms are even encouraged to do this research by a tax break offered by the federal government. (Many states offer inducements for local firms to conduct R&D as well.) These funders don’t have to answer to the public. They can’t break the law, of course, but they can do research and use science in any way they think benefits their corporate objectives and their stockholders. Usually this means developing products that they expect to make money from. But it can also mean performing research outside of any ethical guidelines that the federal government might establish for publicly funded research—for example, with some fetal stem cells.
Answering the question about in whose interest or for whose benefit scientists work more specifically also depends on who and where you are. If you are rich, white, and live in the United States, it is more likely that scientists are working for your benefit. The US government, for instance, spends lots of money trying to cure cancer and heart disease, which is good for people who might get those diseases. But the majority of the world suffers and dies from other health problems – like malnutrition, dysentery, and malaria – before they grow old enough to get cancer. Very little research has a direct benefit for the world’s poor, especially for people living in developing countries. However, some groups, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have made it their mission to promote science for regions (like Africa) and diseases (like malaria) that US scientists typically have not focused on. It is also the case that research in pursuit of national needs – security, economic competitiveness, etc. – may have positive consequences for those in the nation that funds such research, but negative consequences for the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, pausing to think about the nature and direction of his or her research is a very difficult for an individual scientist. Whether they work at universities or in private corporations, scientists are usually under great pressure to get grants, gather and analyze data, publish research papers, apply for patents, train students or other junior researchers, and start the whole process over again. If scientists break from their work to consider the big picture, there is a danger that they’ll fall behind scientifically and miss out professionally – even to the point of losing their jobs. A response from a superior like, “You’re a scientist – you’re not paid to think!” is a real possibility.
There are two significant examples of scientists, as a community, pausing to think about the nature and direction of their work and its broader consequences for society. The first is the discussion, beginning after World War II and the bombing by the US of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, about how best to control the destruction caused by atomic bombs (and the potentially destruction presented by further research and development of hydrogen bombs). The second is the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA in the mid-1970s. In both cases, scientists came together and debated where their work was going, and whether they were happy with those directions.
At the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU, we encourage scientists to think about the implications of their work as they are doing it. We have a number of programs involving both research and education that integrate this kind of reflection on the big picture while scientists do their technical projects. Some professional organizations, such as the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, as well as other groups like the Foresight Institute, offer opportunities for scientists and engineers who want to think about how their work might affect others.
A number of different applications of nanotechnology raise potential privacy issues. For instance, nanotechnology is enabling the creation of sensors too small to be seen by the naked eye. Nanotechnology is also linked to “ubiquitous computing” – the idea that computers will be present in everything from our appliances (where they are now appearing) to our apparel (where they may appear soon!). Combining the two might mean that a great deal of data about people could gathered, analyzed, and distributed not only without their consent but without their knowledge or even their ability to know. It may even be possible to use nano-sensors to gather information that people normally assume is hidden or difficult to detect, such as their consumption habits, their recent travel destinations, or even their mood. (Envisioned nano devices for medical diagnosis can raise similar issues.)
There are currently few legal barriers to the use of such sensors by police or even private individuals who might use such surveillance techniques. Some people have argued that we need new rules regarding the use of pervasive sensing before such sensing networks are created.
There is no single answer to this question. Our ideas of privacy change over time, as a response to new technologies as well as to different social contexts and political circumstances. For instance, traumatic experiences such as terrorist attacks can affect how societies value privacy, security and control. Similarly, new technologies like Facebook can affect the expectations that people have about the distinction between what is public and what is private. Privacy itself is also a complex notion. Is it a right or a privilege? Are there different kinds of privacy in different domains? Who do we trust to protect our right to privacy?
Because different people have very different but legitimate opinions on such questions, it’s important to have broad discussions about them and make decisions on them as a society, in a self-conscious fashion, rather than letting hidden choices about how the technology is going to work make those choices for us. Nanotechnology gives us the occasion to have a public debate to help us decide how security and privacy might be balanced.
The US government has begun to create a few regulations for nanotechnology. There is no one regulatory agency in charge of nanotechnology, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have both started to consider regulatory issues. It is difficult to regulate nanotechnology because it is not always apparent which products contain it. As a result, the US government has thus far chosen only to regulate those who publicly announce they use nanotechnology.
For example, Samsung sells the “SilverCare” washing machine that it described as using nanoparticles of silver to eliminate bacteria. Originally Samsung advertised that its product “killed” 99.9% of bacteria in clothes. This claim caught the attention of the EPA, which argued that the “killing” of bacteria meant the washing machine should be regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). EPA informed Samsung that it would have to submit paperwork accordingly. Samsung decided instead to change their advertising. Their new marketing said that their washing machine “eliminates” bacteria. Because Samsung no longer claimed their product killed anything, EPA could not regulate it under existing rules.
FDA also does not regulate nanotechnology, but it does regulate the drugs and medical devices that can be made with nanotechnology. One interesting complication for FDA is that nano-drugs and nano-devices are so new, and work in ways so different from other drugs and devices, that it may be harder to know whether a new nanotechnology operates chemically like a drug or mechanically like a device. This question may seem like splitting hairs, but FDA has significantly different requirements for the kinds of evidence required of drugs and devices before they are approved for use.
All sorts of laws affect what kind of science gets done and how that science gets done. Laws about government spending (appropriations) tell agencies how much research they can provide funding for, and laws about government activities (authorizations) tell agencies what emphasis those research programs should have.
The government also makes laws about the process of science, or how research is done. We have laws in place, for example, to make sure that people and animals who serve as experimental research subjects are protected. There are also laws about the safe use of hazardous materials – like lethal bacteria and viruses, or radioactive materials – in the laboratory. Such laws exist not only to protect the public, but also to protect scientific workers in the laboratory. There are also laws that govern the ethical use of research materials, for example, fetal stem cells.
The requirements for making regulatory decisions at FDA, EPA and other regulatory agencies also influence how science gets done. There are standardized “good laboratory practices” that allow private research labs to submit their data about, for example, the potential toxic affects of a drug on animals, for consideration in the approval process. Occasionally, government auditors will inspect laboratories to make sure such rules are being complied with. But generally compliance and enforcement is delegated to the universities and firms that perform the research, and they risk fines or even a loss of government funding for violations.
The answer to this question will depend on who you ask. Certain kinds of disclosure are mandated by law. The municipal ordinance in Berkeley, California provides one example: the city board there passed a resolution in 2006 that any company that produces or brings nanoparticles into the city limits needs to report what they are bringing in, and what precautions they are taking to protect health and environment. So far, this kind of mandated public disclosure is unique. However, other kinds of disclosure exist or are being called for. Some NGOs are requesting that all nano-enhanced products should be clearly labeled. How much disclosure of nanotechnology research is necessary, and at what stage, remains a question for public debate.
New medical treatments often lead to increased costs of medical care. New technologies are expensive to develop and implement, so the better we get at curing disease, the greater our medical costs are over our lifetimes. This expense doesn’t mean we shouldn’t develop new medical technologies, but it does mean that we should not expect them to work like computer technologies and get cheaper and cheaper every year. Many medical advances made possible by nanotechnology will thus likely not be available to every one, and especially not in the short term.
Some people believe that nanotechnology will help developing countries a great deal. Nanotechnology may be able to purify water, increase the amount of food produced, provide new types of shelter, and help deal with diseases such as malaria.
However, many others are more skeptical. Every major technology developed in the last fifty years has carried the promise of being able to help the poor, but none has been the magic bullet. This failure is in part because the challenges developing countries face are extremely complex. In order to reap the benefits of new technologies you need a sufficient technological infrastructure and scientific expertise, which many developing countries lack. No country can really benefit from nanotechnology unless it can control the processes of research, development, and production. Moreover, one of the major needs of developing countries is decent paying jobs for their people. It is unlikely that nanotechnology will help this problem. Rather, nanotechnology will more likely make products and processes more efficient and reduce the number of jobs available worldwide.
Nanotechnology may also disrupt world-wide trade in some resources, which could be a benefit or a curse to developing countries. For example, a great deal of research is focused on using nanotechnology to make catalysis more efficient or for entirely eliminating the need for expensive catalysts like platinum. Success in that endeavor would likely not be a happy event for South Africa, the world’s largest producer of platinum. Then again, if nanotechnological uses of titanium dioxide flourish, it might just be a benefit to one of the world’s major producers, Kenya.