Report

Nanotechnology

The Social and Ethical Issues

Quick Summary

Nanotechnology has tremendous potential to contribute to human flourishing in socially just and environmentally sustainable ways. However, nanotechnology is unlikely to realize its full potential unless its associated social and ethical issues are adequately attended.

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 by Ron Sandler of Northeastern University is to clearly place social and ethical issues within ongoing debates on the responsible development of nanotechnologies. The paper presents a broad framework to structure the analysis and discussion of ethical issues, which builds on improving our understanding of the social, cultural, and moral context of emerging technologies and assessing the status of these issues as the technologies evolve.

The author takes on some of the common misconceptions that undermine our ability to address social and ethical issues early and effectively, such as the “it's too early to discuss ethics” excuse and the tendency to frame new technologies in terms of their inevitability (and inevitable good). The paper highlights, through theory and research linked to case studies, a wide variety of possible social and ethical issues linked to emerging nanotechnologies, ranging from environmental justice to human enhancement and the myth of the techno-fix—our tendency to favor technological fixes to problems rather than behavioral changes or other major shifts. Indeed, the framework outlined in this paper can be applied to a wide variety of emerging technologies.

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.

David Rejeski
Director, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Technology and Society

Technology is a thoroughly social phenomenon. Technologies emerge from society. They are made possible and encouraged by society—e.g., through social valuing, public funding and intellectual property policies. They are implemented in and disseminated through society; they are also sometimes prohibited, resisted or rejected by society. They alter society. Indeed, without technology it is difficult to conceive of society at all or, at least, to conceive of a society such as ours with complex and evolving cultures constituted by accumulated knowledge, traditions, practices, institutions and organizations. Technology shapes every aspect of our lives—the places we inhabit, the ways we interact, how we do our work (and the work that we do), our forms of recreation, our institutional arrangements and how we organize our days and our lives.

This understanding of the relationship between technology and society militates against the naïve view of technology as simply what we create to solve problems and overcome barriers i.e., that we find a need for it, create it, use it and control it (except, of course, for the occasional unanticipated side effects, which are best handled by further technological inventiveness). Not only is technology inseparable from society, it shapes us as much as we shape it. Thus, the relationship between technology and society is deeply value laden.

Ethics and the Functions of Government

Ethics, in its most basic sense, concerns how we ought and ought not) to lead our lives. Because technology structures our experiences and shapes how we live, it has enormous ethical significance. The functions of government intersect with the ethical and value dimensions of technology in several ways:

  • Science and technology policy and funding involve decisions about what ends should receive priority and how resources should be allocated in pursuit of those ends. This is evident in domains as diverse as energy policy (e.g., the balance of efficiency and production and the distribution of energy sources), intellectual property policy and research funding (from particle physics to entomology). In each case, the policy is intended to accomplish certain goals rather than some others. Its justification therefore depends on certain goals being valued more highly than their alternatives. Decisions about priorities are based on value judgments.
  • Regulation of science and technology is intended to accomplish something that is thought to be worthwhile and that justifies any associated costs. Regulation has power, control, oversight and responsibility
    dimensions and often involvesallocating burdens and benefits. All of these are characteristic of ethical issues and decisions. This is evident in domains as diverse as facilities permitting (e.g., nuclear power plants and waste-transfer stations), setting research limits (e.g., human subjects research and reproductive cloning), risk management (e.g., workplace safety and environmental pollution) and technology use (e.g., privacy protection and non-therapeutic use of human growth hormone). Regulation, like policy, has ineliminable value components.
  • Government can support research on, raise awareness of and promote responsiveness to social and ethical issues associated with technology. The most prominent case of this in the United States has been the Ethical, Legal, and Societal Implications component of the Human Genome Project. Supported by 3–5 percent of the project's funding, this component catalyzed the field of bioethics by creating a cadre of professional ethicists and raising the salience of several ethical issues associated with genomics—e.g., the possibility of genetic screening by employers and insurance companies and protection of the confidentiality of genetic information. Government can also obscure social and ethical issues associated with technology. This has been the case with genetically modified crops, where inadequate government capacity (with respect to oversight, regulatory design and meaningful public participation in decision making, for example) has resulted in substantial economic, social and technological costs.

Although social and ethical issues associated with science and technology do not begin and end with government, government is not a neutral observer. Government functions and actors, from the local to the federal level and across all branches of government, respond to, engage with and act upon values and ethical issues associated with science and technology. This can be done effectively (as some have argued is the case with the Human Genome Project and embryonic stem cell research) or not (as some have argued is the case with genetically modified crops and nuclear power). How government engages these issues has substantial ethical, social, economic and technological implications.

Read Full Section: Technology, Ethics and Government (PDF)

Ethics, particularly as it relates to technology, is usually associated with prohibitions and restraints. This is unfortunate. Although part of its purview is proscription, ethics is also aspirational. It involves identifying how to make our way in the world well, what to strive for and the ideals that we set before ourselves, as individuals and as societies, and that we attempt to live up to and measure ourselves against. So while the ethics of nanotechnology does involve prohibitions and restraints, that is not nearly the whole, or even the most important part, of it. Nor is it where ethical reflection on nanotechnology is best begun. It should begin by reflecting on what we, as a society, should want from emerging nanotechnologies, namely, that they contribute to human flourishing in socially just and environmentally sustainable ways.

Read Full Section: Ethics and Emerging Nanotechnologies (PDF)

There are several common misconceptions regarding the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies that obscure their significance to responsible development. This section discusses three of the most influential and widespread of these issues.

Read Full Section: Three Misconceptions about Social and Ethical Issues (PDF)

Typologies divide and organize conceptual terrain. Most typologies are conventional and programmatic. This one is no different. It is a typology, not the typology, of the social and ethical issues.3 The considerations that have guided its development are that it illuminate the full range of issues (inclusiveness), that the types are clear and distinguished by significant features (e.g., time line, familiarity, determinacy or regulatory relevance), that the types are neither too gross (and too few) nor too fine (and too many) to be helpful in organizing discourse on them and that it reflect ongoing discussions on the issues. The types are not mutually exclusive—a particular issue might fall within more than one type—and some aspects cut across all the types—e.g., evaluations of risks, power relations and societal (governmental, social and ethical) capacity.

The Typology

  • social context issues
  • contested moral issues
  • technoculture issues
  • form of life issues
  • transformational issues

Read Full Section: Typology of the Issues (PDF)

The Opportunity

Many of the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies are determinate, immediate, distinct, significant and actionable. Consideration of and responsiveness to them are needed now in order to anticipate and proactively address, as far as possible, potential negative aspects of emerging nanotechnologies, as well as to identify and promote opportunities for nanotechnology to contribute to human flourishing in just and sustainable ways. This is precisely the justification for including responsible development as an objective within the NNI.

However, the anticipatory model for responsible development sought by the NNI does not yet fully exist. As with nanoscale science and technology, there are some pieces in place, some resources from which to draw (e.g., experiences with previous emerging technologies and expertise in relevant areas), dedicated and capable researchers (in academia, government, non-governmental organizations and elsewhere) and ambitious and laudable goals. This is true of all aspects of responsible development—education and outreach, EHS and other social, ethical and legal issues—and it is a reason why nanotechnology is as exciting and challenging from a humanities and social science perspective as it is from a science and engineering perspective. Thus far, the effort to develop effective responses to social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies has been inadequate—stymied by misconception of what the issues are, why they are crucial to responsible development and how to proactively address them.

It is possible to do better, and the NNI affords as good an opportunity to address many of the issues as is likely to present itself. First, within the NNI there is a substantial and apparently genuine commitment to promoting nanotechnology as a social good, as well as recognition that considerable efforts in support of responsible development are necessary to do so. Second, there is some recognition within the NNI that there are significant social and ethical issues above and beyond public outreach, infrastructure and workforce development and EHS that need to be addressed. Social and ethical issues do at least find mention in core NNI documents, and there has been some effort within the NNI to identify them (Roco and Bainbridge 2001, 2005). Third, there is recognition within the NNI that significant policy and regulatory changes may be needed to build adequate government capacity for achieving responsible development. It is not often that the federal government openly encourages and supports rethinking the organization, authority, resources, mandates and approaches of its frontline regulatory and policy agencies, many of which intersect with or are implicated in social and ethical issues. Fourth, the NNI is a comprehensive research program along several dimensions—e.g., the number of government agencies involved, the number of disciplines involved and the types of research (basic, applied, social, scientific) being pursued. The NNI has already developed intra- and interagency coordination (e.g., the Interagency Working Group on Nanotechnology Environmental and Health Implications) and coordinators (e.g., the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office) to help avoid redundancy, define research needs and share data, for example.

Taken together, these factors suggest that the NNI affords a unique opportunity to take a broad, critical and constructive perspective on the relationship between technology, government, environment and society; while 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.

Executive Summary

Nanotechnology has tremendous potential to contribute to human flourishing in socially just and environmentally sustainable ways. However, nanotechnology is unlikely to realize its full potential unless its associated social and ethical issues are adequately attended. The purpose of this report is to raise the salience of social and ethical issues within ongoing responsible development discourses and efforts by:

  • identifying the crucial roles of ethics in the responsible development of technology;
  • dispelling common misconceptions about the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies;
  •  providing a typology of the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies and identifying several specific issues within each type; and
  • emphasizing how social and ethical issues intersect with governmental functions and responsibilities.

Government and Ethics

Among the functions of government that intersect with the ethical and value dimensions of technology are the following:

  • Science and technology policy and funding involve decisions about what ends should receive priority and about how resources should be allocated in pursuit of those ends. Justification of these decisions requires that some goals be valued more highly than others—i.e., it rests on comparative value judgments.
  • Regulation of science and technology is intended to accomplish something that is thought to be worthwhile and that justifies any associated costs. Regulation also has power, control, oversight and responsibility dimensions, and often involves allocating burdens and benefits. All of these are characteristic of ethical issues and decisions.
  • Government can support research on, raise awareness of and promote responsiveness to social and ethical issues associated with technology (as many believe to be the case with the Human Genome Project). It can also obscure social and ethical issues associated with technology (as many believe to be the case with genetically modified crops).

Roles of Ethics in the Responsible Development of Technology

The goal for any emerging technology is to contribute to human flourishing in socially just and environmentally sustainable ways. Given this, the roles of ethics within responsible development of nanotechnology include:

  • elucidating what constitutes justice, human flourishing and sustainability;
  • identifying opportunities for nanotechnology to accomplish the goal and anticipating impediments to its doing so;
  • developing standards for assessing prospective nanotechnologies;
  • providing ethical capacity (i.e., tools and resources that assist individuals and organizations to make ethically informed decisions) to enable society to adapt effectively to emerging nanotechnologies; and
  • identifying limits on how the goal ought to be pursued.

Three Misconceptions about Ethics and Emerging Nanotechnologies


Several common misconceptions about the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies have obscured their significance to responsible development and thereby hampered our responsiveness to them. Three of the most important of these misconceptions are as follows:

  • It is too soon to tell what the social and ethical issues are. This misconception is fostered by a narrow focus on the technology itself when trying to identify social and ethical issues. When broader contextual factors, such as unequal access to technology, information insecurity and inadequate biodefense research oversight are considered, it becomes clear that it is not too early to identify and to begin to respond to social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies.
  • The nanotechnology revolution is inevitably good. This misconception results from a preoccupation with the crucial contributions that technology makes to the comfort, security, healthfulness and longevity of people’s lives in industrialized nations. If one takes a more encompassing historical, global and ecological view of technology’s development and impacts, it is clear that emerging technologies (including emerging nanotechnologies) are not inevitably good.
  • The point of the social and ethical issues is to secure public acceptance. This misconception arises from the desire for smooth commercialization of emerging nanotechnologies coupled with the view that public opposition to them is primarily the result of misunderstandings or baseless concerns regarding them. In fact, people’s concerns regarding emerging technologies are often neither the result of ignorance nor baseless. Moreover, as indicated above, there are robust roles for ethics in responsible development of nanotechnology other than securing public acceptance.

A Typology of Ethical Issues

This typology is intended to organize the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies in ways that are illuminating and productive.

  1.  Social Context Issues: Social context issues arise from the interaction of nanotechnologies with problematic features of the social or institutional contexts into which the nanotechnologies are emerging. Examples of social context issues include unequal access to health care, inequalities in education, unequal access to technology, inadequate information security/privacy protection, inefficiencies in intellectual property systems, unequal exposure to environmental hazards and inadequate consumer safety protection.
  2. Contested Moral Issues: Contested moral issues arise from nanotechnology’s interaction with or instantiation of morally controversial practices or activities—i.e., those that a substantial number of citizens believe should be prohibited. Examples of contested moral practices and activities in which nanoscale science and technology are, or are likely to be, involved include synthetic biology, construction of artificial organisms, biological weapons development, stem cell research and genetic modification of human beings.
  3. Technoculture Issues: Technoculture issues arise from problematic aspects of the role of technology within the social systems and structures from which, and into which, nanotechnologies are emerging. Examples of technoculture issues include an overreliance on technological fixes to manage problematic effects (rather than addressing underlying causes of those effects), overestimation of our capacity to predict and control technologies (particularly within complex and dynamic biological systems) and technological mediation of our relationship with and experience of nature (and
    associated marginalization of natural values).
  4. Form of Life Issues: Form of life issues arise from nanotechnology’s synergistic impacts on aspects of the human situation on which social standards, practices and institutions are predicated. For example, if nanomedicine helps extend the average human life span even five or ten healthful years, norms of human flourishing will need to be reconsidered and there are likely to be significant impacts on family norms and structures (e.g., care responsibilities), life plans or trajectories (e.g., when people marry) and social and political institutions (e.g., Medicare).
  5. Transformational Issues: Transformational issues arise from nanotechnology’s potential (particularly in combination with other emerging technologies, such as biotechnology, information technology, computer science, cognitive science and robotics) to transform aspects of the human situation. This might be accomplished by significantly altering the kind of creatures that we are, reconstituting our relationship to the natural environment or creating self-aware and autonomous artificial intelligences (i.e., artifactual persons). In such cases, some prominent aspect of our ethical landscape would need to be reconfigured—for example, what it means to be human, personal identity or the moral status of some artifacts.

The Status of the Social and Ethical Issues within Responsible Development

With the misconceptions resolved and the full range of issues elucidated, it is clear that the social and ethical issues associated with emerging nanotechnologies are:

 Determinate: It is possible to identify many of the social and ethical issues.
 Immediate: It is not too soon to begin considering many of the issues.
 Distinct: The issues are not reducible to other aspects of responsible development.
 Significant: Addressing the issues is crucial to the responsible development of emerging nanotechnologies.
 Actionable: In many cases, there are steps that can be taken now by actors, including those in government, to address the issues.

Consideration of and responsiveness to social and ethical issues are needed now in order to anticipate and proactively address, as far as possible, potential negative aspects of emerging nanotechnologies, as well as to identify and promote opportunities for nanotechnology to contribute to human flourishing in just and sustainable ways. The National Nanotechnology Initiative affords a unique opportunity to promote a broad, critical and constructive perspective on the relationships between technology, government, environment and society at the same time that emerging nanotechnologies offer enormous possibilities for making social (not just technological) progress through comprehensive, innovative, and forwardlooking responsible development.

Ronald Sandler is an associate professor of philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, a researcher in the Nanotechnology and Society Research Group and Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing, and a research associate in the Environmental Justice Research Collaborative at Northeastern University.

- See more at: http://www.pewhealth.org/reports-analysis/reports/nanotechnology-85899368676/2#sthash.c0ZjAK8l.dpuf

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