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Ogmius Newsletter

Research Highlight

Embedded Nanotechnology Policy Research


CSPO LogoErik Fisher, a doctoral candidate in the Environmental Studies program at the University of Colorado, is conducting research investigating the possibility and utility of integrating societal considerations with technology development, especially during (as opposed to before or after) R&D, as called for by the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003.  Our Center will be collaborating on a new NSF project with ASU's Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes to explore the societal implications of nanotechnology.  Erik’s research is described in the following article.

Embedded Nanotechnology Policy Research
By Erik Fisher

Nanotechnology in Society logoNanotechnology generally refers to the understanding and control of matter at atomic and molecular scales and presently constitutes the largest U.S. federally funded multi-agency scientific research program since the Apollo space program.   While policy makers optimistically tout the environmental and economic benefits associated with the up and coming field, including its role in the pursuit of global competitiveness, some of the same voices express caution that the tiny tech’s future could be stunted by societal concerns, as happened with prior emerging technologies.

Accordingly, the 21st Century National Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 reflects something of a dual focus on the “rapid” but also “responsible” development of nanotech.  Markedly, it calls for societal concerns about envisioned applications to be considered and addressed during the early stages of research and development.

The attention to societal considerations that the Act mandates in this “ethics policy” is a considerable step forward in terms of prior societal research, implications, and assessment programs.  While there has been a trend over the years toward more explicit linkages between science and society,  the Act’s mandate calls for a much more interactive and outcomes-oriented relationship between R&D and societal research.

Significantly, this type of approach appears to be gaining momentum, as evidenced by recent discussions of “upstream engagement” of science by social perspectives, and by the National Science Foundation’s decision to establish a Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University that will carry out “real-time technology assessment.”

Broad scale implementation of the Act’s “ethics policy” will, however, prove challenging.  The lack of both published research and clear programmatic precedents raise fundamental questions of how to integrate societal considerations into R&D activities and what the possible effects on research quality and productivity might be.

To this end, Erik Fisher, a doctoral candidate in Environmental Studies and a Center affiliate, is investigating the role of nanotechnology researchers in shaping their research with societal considerations.  As an “embedded humanist” within the Thermal and Nanotechnology Lab of the Mechanical Engineering department at CU Boulder, Fisher interacts closely with the lab’s director, Dr. Roop Mahajan, and its researchers to develop a proof of concept for what Fisher terms “midstream modulation.”

“Midstream modulation” highlights two distinct features of the Act’s prescription.  First, science policy tends to take place either upstream (as in budget decisions) or downstream (as in product approval) of science and engineering activities.  When it does take place midstream, science policy rarely focuses on end-user considerations. Secondly, given the hierarchical nature of technologies and the limits on predicting social systems, engineering and scientific researchers rarely have opportunities to make decisions that directly affect societal outcomes.  Nor do those outside the research process always have a clear picture of what is and is not technologically possible.

Given that “command and control” approaches to ethical and societal issues in technology are suspect, researchers might do well to modulate the evolution of research paths by incrementally expanding their perception of available alternatives and enhancing the process of selection.  The possibility and utility of this idea is what Fisher is presently studying.     

Erik Fisher