Which ethics policy for nanotechnology?

July 7th, 2005

Posted by: admin

Last week during a House Science subcommittee hearing, “Nanotechnology: Where Does the U.S. Stand?”(), there was a testy exchange on the role of ethical impact assessment in nanotechnology and who determines this. The focus of the hearing was on how U.S. nanotechnology activities “measure up” to international competition, and one question asked about barriers to nanotechnology commercialization.

The hearing comes on the heals of an assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a report that was required by the 2003 act authorizing federal funding for nanotech R&D. This law called for a National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel to conduct the assessment. In 2004, President Bush designated PCAST as the NNAP.

The law requires NNI activities to integrate research on ethical concerns surrounding nanotechnology into R&D activities, and requires the NNAC (now PCAST) to assess “whether societal, ethical, legal, environmental, and workforce concerns are adequately addressed by the [NNI]” and to make recommendations for improvement. The PCAST report, however, can be interpreted as fairly insubstantial in its treatment of how ethical concerns are being addressed (see Howard Lovy’s entertaining summary). For instance, in stressing the role of “sound science” over “perceived fears,” the language of the report appears to downplay the role of ongoing ethical assessment with respect to R&D activities.

During the hearing, PCAST co-chairman Floyd Kvamme, one of the witnesses, suggested that health, safety, and environment issues are mostly workplace related. For example, employees who install nanotubes into, say, tennis balls may face heath and safety risks. Yet, once the nanotubes are in the tennis ball, Kvamme stated, “we are far less concerned because of the technology involved there.” (By contrast, another hearing witness, Matthew Nordan, stated “the truth is we don’t know right now” whether the nanotubes in a given product may separate from their composite matrix after 20-50 years in a landfill).

Towards the end of the hearing, House Science committee member Brad Sherman had a telling exchange with the PCAST co-chairman. Asked what the administration was doing to carry out the mandate to study the potential impacts of nanotech activity, Kvamme referred to a popular work of science fiction that has come to epitomize the “perceived fear” of nanotechnology.

Later, Kvamme defended the decision not to assess the NNI with respect to ethical issues concerning artificial intelligence – issues mentioned explicitly in the 2003 act – on the grounds that research projects do not appear at present to be “going on.” Sherman responded that the provision to study the impacts of such projects “weren’t designed to become operative a year before [they] were technologically possible.”

At one point, Sherman stated “you’re supposed to be looking at the societal problems and you’re looking at the technological capacity.” In other words, “[you] don’t want to study the societal problems of doing it, [you] want to study how to do it.”

The dichotomy between “science” and “perception” can sometimes suggest an unduly high level of certainty. Consequently, ethical concerns that extend beyond the scientific capacity to address them may fall into the category of unscientific or even irrational, and may be largely dismissed. One problem with this is that real risks and significant impacts that are slow to emerge can be ignored until it is too late to effectively address them. On the other hand, popular perceptions and concerns about an emerging science can certainly be wildly inaccurate. To simply ignore these concerns, however, is to dismiss consumer and taxpayer perceptions, which can undermine commercialization efforts.

The ethics policy that the NNI ultimately adopts will in many ways involve what perspectives on uncertainty happen to be prevalent – for instance, how much legitimacy policymakers grant to the uncertainty surrounding various specific ethical concerns, or the degree to which they consider it important to focus on reducing regulative uncertainty, which can also undermine commercialization.

Another key factor will entail who actually makes the decisions. The congressional authorizing committee upon which Sherman sits contributed to the law’s language about ethical concerns. There is a running debate on what authority congressional authorizing committees actually have in comparison to congressional appropriations committees (a nice follow up post here on Prometheus?). Implementation of the law rests with administrative agencies and committees. When Sherman somewhat sarcastically wondered out loud whether “authorizing committees, even when successful in getting their language into law, are not in a position to influence administrative policy,” the PCAST co-chairman responded, “possibly not.” Needless to say, the congressman didn’t take well to the implication that authorizing committees may simply be “wasting [their] time.”

A webcast of the hearing, entitled “Nanotechnology: Where Does the U.S. Stand?,” is available here.

2 Responses to “Which ethics policy for nanotechnology?”

  1. Eli Rabett Says:

    I’m not sure I see many ethical issues here. There are public health issues (potentially) and materials issues (decomposition, aging, etc), but I think putting all these things together under the tent of ethics is not only confusing but guaranteed to screw up any sensible discussion.

    Most of the materials and health issues are open, ie we really don’t have a clue. Thus one comes to the only (perhaps) ethical issue, should one do R or R&D in an area where there may be negative/positive outcomes without having a firm idea that the balance is positive. This is certainly not unique to nanotechnology. Another one which is occasionally raised is should money be spent on x when people in y are starving? Again, not unique to nanotechnology.

    My take on nanotechnology is that first, it is too widely defined, encompassing everything with dimensions below 1000 nm. Thus the opportunity for cherry picking technologies and applications is endless. You can get any answer you want out of the fog. Second, at this point a lot of the technology is an answer looking for a question, with a lot of salesmanship thrown in. I’ve been here before. Like MEMS, lasers, etc., we will be in a lot better position to confront outcomes when the questions are better matched to the answers.

    Till then all of these discussions are marshmellow soft and I don’t blame anyone for avoiding them. I’m actually a bit surprised at your position such as I can discern it.

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  3. Mike Treder Says:

    Part of the problem here is confusion between two types of nanotechnology: today’s nanoscale technologies, which will bring incremental advances, and tomorrow’s advanced nanotechnology (molecular manufacturing), which will bring revolutionary advances. The ethical challenges of the former are familiar; the challenges of the latter will be unprecedented in scope and concentration of impact.

    See http://crnano.org/whatis.htm