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Nanotech is Novel; the Ethical Issues Are Not

Nanoscience and nanotechnology are among today's most promising fields of research. If their full potential is to be realized, we need to attend along the way to key ethical issues. But ethics should not be grounded in exaggerations, either positive or negative; hype just obscures important issues.One type of hype comes from enthusiasts who argue that nanotech is a wonderful thing. One day, they aver, "nanoassemblers" will convert coal into diamonds, turn grass clippings into beef, and restore t

By | February 16, 2004

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Nanoscience and nanotechnology are among today's most promising fields of research. If their full potential is to be realized, we need to attend along the way to key ethical issues. But ethics should not be grounded in exaggerations, either positive or negative; hype just obscures important issues.

One type of hype comes from enthusiasts who argue that nanotech is a wonderful thing. One day, they aver, "nanoassemblers" will convert coal into diamonds, turn grass clippings into beef, and restore the world's ecology. Poverty, illness, even mortality itself, will be mere memories. This utopian vision, they say, is a powerful argument in favor of zealously developing these technologies.

At the opposite, apocalyptic extreme are those who argue that if we're not careful, nanotech could run amok, as self-replicating nanoassemblers turn from their assigned tasks and begin feeding on ... well, everything. This risk, they say, constitutes a powerful argument in favor of halting nanotechnology research immediately.

According to many science professionals, these self-replicating nanoassemblers upon which these predictions depend are pure fantasy. Arguably, our main focus should be the short-to-midterm, plausible scenarios likely to present us with real choices fairly soon. We should not be distracted by hype and seduced into presuming that ethical concerns involve a science-fiction future that may never arrive. Instead, let's examine some realistic worries related to plausible, if still speculative, advances in nanoscience and nanotechnology.

EFFECTS ON HUMAN HEALTH

We need more basic research on the physiological effects of nanoparticles and nanomaterials. Nanotechnology is based, in part, on the idea that nanoscale particles and macroscale particles, though made from the same materials, behave differently. Therefore, presumptions that nanoparticles are "just the same" in terms of safety seem questionable in the face of the claim that those particles are "radically different," in terms of performance.

EFFECTS ON THE ENVIRONMENT

What effects will nanotechnologies have on the environment? Carbon nanotubes (essentially rolled-up sheets of carbon, just a few nanometers wide) are already in production. Their unique electrical properties and strength imply many potential uses, but caution seems warranted. Too little is currently known about the effects of nanotubes on organisms, waterways, or ecosystems.

PRIVACY AND SECURITY

If surveillance technologies become too small to see with the naked eye, what will the implications be for privacy? Will cheap, mass-produced nanocameras be a boon or a disaster? Now, simply to ask the question does not automatically imply a negative conclusion. Perhaps ubiquitous, unseen surveillance technologies will lead to a more stable, secure world. But that's a question, rather, a set of questions, that needs further examination.

NEW SCIENCE, SAME ETHICS

Ethical reflection on nanotech requires that we apply ethical principles to new domains, but it does not demand new principles. An example: As nanoscience spawns developments in nanomedicine, concerns arise related to experimentation on human subjects. These innovative treatments will sometimes use novel methods of delivery (e.g., drugs dispensed to tumors inside engineered molecules such as fullerenes). Yet the principles governing research will remain unchanged. Researchers must continue focusing on informed consent, risk minimization, and the protection of vulnerable populations.

The lesson: We must develop general competency to deal with ethical issues related to all novel technologies. The biotech boon of the '90s produced a global industry in biotech ethics: Cloning, genetic testing, and the like pose novel questions. But in part, the rise of biotech ethics was a red herring. For whether the technology at hand biotechnology, nanotechnology, or infotechnology, the overarching questions remain constant. Who will be harmed? Who will benefit? Will the gains and losses be shared equitably? How will these technologies affect us as people, and as a community?

What we need, if we are to deal effectively with such questions, is clear, though not easily attained. Perhaps most crucially, we need ethically thoughtful scientists, and in greater numbers than are currently found. Perhaps the best way to achieve that is to integrate ethics into university science curricula. But scientists, of course, are only part of the story. We also need scientifically savvy academics in the social sciences and humanities, socially responsible corporations, and a public with enough scientific literacy to participate in what will surely be ongoing debates about the role of science and technology in our individual and collective lives.

Chris MacDonald, PhD, is assistant professor in the philosophy department at Saint Mary's University, Halifax, Canada. He is researching ethical issues related to the development and commercialization of new technologies.

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