t least four distinguishable but overlapping controversies are already in progress concerning nanoscience and technology. Also discernible are a number of latent controversies – where serious issues exist, but which to date remain dormant, unaddressed. The articles in this special issue take up many of these matters, including disagreements over the technical trajectories being pursued (and not pursued), problematic social consequences and other hazards perceived by some contributors, biases in institutional decision making, questions about who should participate in nanotechnological choices and via what deliberative mechanisms, and the procedural safeguards under which the innovation trajectories should proceed. There is no strictly technical solution to any of the controversies; all require exercise of political judgment. One of the most basic issues concerns whether nanotechnology is adequately conceptualized as an ordinary realm of innovation, or whether there is something extraordinary about nanotechnology that deserves special handling. If the emerging capacities lead primarily to particles in sunscreens, better targeted pharmaceuticals, and stain-resistant fabrics, most people are not going to be very worried, believing that normal regulatory and liability mechanisms can take care of problems in ways no worse than law and government normally operate. If, however, the technology comes to involve “bottom-up” molecular self-assembly (see below), then a wholly different approach may be warranted to deal with the radically greater range and magnitude of potential problems. With inspiration from Richard Feynman’s 1959 Cal Tech talk, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” Eric Drexler in the 1980s conceptualized the possibili-
ty of manufacturing occurring atom by atom, and he warned that there were substantial risks as well as huge benefits potentially associated with these techniques , . Novel attributes with nontrivial social consequences were part of his story, and he envisioned nanofabrication being self-directed, with machines building machines building consumer artifacts. With self replication and learning thereby entailed, a (remote?) possibility could arise of unleashing a new kind of entity not unlike a computer virus, but with a physical presence. Some of the dramatic downsides of that scenario were popularized in Bill Joy’s 2000 Wired commentary and in Michael Crichton’s 2002 technothriller Prey , . Meanwhile, Drexler and colleagues gradually have been refining their ideas about potentials, risks, and techniques for molecular manufacturing (MNT), and now say that self-replicating capacities are not actually necessary for MNT, and, because of the risks, should be prohibited . Chris Phoenix, research director at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, offers a relatively accessible technical introduction to the subject in his article, “Studying Molecular Manufacturing.” The mainstream nanotechnology R&D community is not pursuing the transformative MNT vision, with many knowledgeable persons dismissing the idea. MNT does not belong in a serious discussion of nanotechnology policy, those directing the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) probably would say, because the real story is elsewhere, in nanoparticles and other near-term projects. Even the longer term is now devoted to somewhat ordinary nanoscience, such as that involved in the National Cancer Institute’s recent $100+ million foray into nano-biomedicine based on the hope that “Nanotechnology has the potential to radically
Guest Editor Edward J. Woodhouse is Associate Professor in the Science and Technology Studies Department, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 110 8th St., Sage Building 5th floor, Troy, NY 12180-3590; email: [email protected]
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increase our options for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer,” according to Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, director of the National Cancer Institute . Such views may prove correct; but, given the poor track record of predictions about what will or will not happen technologically, how much is it prudent to bet on mainstream interpretations ? In the MNT case, important choices have to be made before it becomes evident whose predictions are correct: Should we spend time and money preparing to cope with the problems potentially raised by molecular manufacturing, a form of insurance premium that will have been wasted if MNT turns out to be impossible? Or should we forego such investment and hope for the best, meaning that civilization may be caught terribly off guard if MNT breakthroughs do occur? A second, closely related procedural controversy concerns the question of whether nanotechnology administrators are doing all they should to assist government officials and the general public in making informed choices about whether to take MNT seriously. Some of the contributors to this special issue offer evidence that the MNT issue is being unduly downplayed. If they are right, the public arguably is being done a nontrivial disservice. Three articles bear on the matter, starting with Foresight Institute vice president Christine Peterson, who offers the perspective of one the main parties to the dispute regarding “The Grand Challenge of Molecular Manufacturing.” Policy analyst Roger Wilsdon from the independent think tank DEMOS offers a European perspective concerning “The Politics of Small Things.” And philosopher David Berube and legal scholar J. D. Shipman analyze the tone of the disagreements among nanoscientists in “Denialism: Drexler vs. Roco.” All three can be read as suggesting that nanoscience administrators sometimes come across as a bit too keen to avoid the sorry fate of genetically modified foods in Europe. Does this merely constitute prudent learning from experience, or has the understandable desire to avoid raising red flags verged over into political cover-up? I suspect readers will come away with varying interpretations. Questions also arise as to whether nanotechnology policy needs better decision-making processes. To date, it can be argued, key directions are being set by “a small group of experts, mostly male, mostly upper middle class, mostly North American…(who) have thought no more carefully about the social aspects of their work than had the previous century’s technologists who introduced nuclear weaponry…or the chemists who blithely synthesized millions of tons of chlorinated chemicals without regard for their ecological and health effects” [8, p. 67]. The Science Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote into 2003 nanotechnology legislation a relatively weak requirement for public participation, and it is worth asking what role, if any, there IEEE TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY MAGAZINE
should be for democratic consultation going beyond the conventional mechanisms for interaction with government officials , . The frequently heard claim that existing law is ill prepared to deal with nanotechnology is examined in Michael Bennett’s article, “Does Existing Law Fail to Address Nanotechnoscience?” Several other pieces deal less focally with the adequacy of existing governance institutions and procedures, particularly Wilsdon’s analysis of the U.K. experience. Another controversy, perhaps the most focused and active one thus far, concerns possible negative health effects of nanoparticles. One of the world’s leading insurance firms, Swiss Reinsurance, issued a thoughtful, detailed May 2004 report analyzing ways that nanotechnology could impact the insurance industry. They offered an explicit analogy to one of the best-known technological fiascoes, pointing out that “Despite early warnings of the effects of asbestos on health, it took some 100 years to introduce internationally accepted asbestos standards. It would be advisable to find a consensus faster this time” [11, p. 41]. The SwissRe report recommends against using nano-sunscreens on young children, because nanoparticles may be absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream, and other biomedical research suggests that nanoparticles, unlike most conventional environmental contaminants, may pass through the blood-brain barrier . The July 2004 report of the U.K.’s Royal Academy of Science likewise recommended more testing and perhaps regulation of nanoparticles . Because health and environmental risks are well covered in other forums, they are not highlighted in the articles assembled here. Arguably the greatest risk to health, environment, and other public values is one not analyzed in the above reports – military uses of nanotechnology. The nanoscience and technology communities devote little attention to military issues at conferences, and conventional health risks receive far more attention in the media. As Jürgen Altman and Mark Gubrud make apparent in “Anticipating Military Nanotechnology,” however, no one concerned about the social and environmental consequences of weaponry proliferation can afford to ignore the nanotechnology being pursued by defense contractors and by others with military funding. As the Foresight Institute has long been saying, deliberate misuse of nanotechnological potentials may very well swamp whatever the valid concerns may be concerning unintended consequences of civilian R&D and commercialization. Given the huge role of the military sector in U.S. R&D policy, the quiescence concerning its nanotechnology trajectories is difficult to explain. Altman and Gubrud do not claim that individual nanotechnologists are trying to hush anything up, and they likewise offer no evidence that institutional processes within the militaryindustrial-university complex are misdirecting public attention. Nevertheless, readers of their piece may be |
provoked to wonder whether the relative silence on the subject can be attributed merely to the post-9/11 pro-military climate, or whether there is more to it. Most generally, readers might be stimulated to think about the factors that can keep issues off the agenda, and to think about the social forces thereby advantaged . Conversely, whether and how “Societal Dimensions of Nanotechnology” might move onto scientific agendas much earlier is the issue taken up in the article by Michael Gorman and colleagues. A social scientist, a materials scientist, and an engineering student report on an educational experience designed to transcend the usual division between social and technical. The result was a bio-nano scaffold that assists in understanding wound healing, progression of arteriosclerosis, and tumor cell invasion. As they put it, “Maximum benefit to society…(requires) research projects…to consider societal dimensions from the earliest stages.” What would it take to act on that intention, not just at the level of specific research projects but also in large-scale national programs? If social goals are to be built into innovative endeavors from the outset, what are some of the implications for RD&D? Is it reasonable to suppose that public deliberation and governmental action can keep up with the pace at which research programs now proceed? ETC Group, the public interest organization that helped undermine GMO foods in Europe, has turned its attention to nanotechnology, and has begun calling for a moratorium on some R&D together with restrictions on inquiries that do proceed , . Whatever one thinks of any particular proposal, the nanotechnology case invites reflection on an issue that has rarely been deliberated meaningfully in the course of technological developments over the past century and more: What pace makes sense , ? One of the primary lessons of technological innovation from the 20th century is that advance prediction is unreliable, and that there is no substitute for learning by doing about both the upside and the downside of complex new technologies . Yet such learning requires considerable time, and the present pace of innovation may not allow sufficient time or attention for appropriate monitoring and gradual learning from experience. What it would take to bring this issue forcefully to the attention of nanoscientists, government officials, scholars, business executives, and the attentive public lurks just beneath the surface of many of the articles in this issue. Finally, in “Nanotechnology’s Worldview,” Alfred Nordman probes the rhetorical techniques helping to frame people’s thinking about nanotechnology. The German philosopher subtly probes some of the ways that mental schemas are more or less deliberately being influenced by official reports. He does not explicitly say it, but the obvious follow-up is to ask: Which issues 8
thereby become more difficult to think clearly about, and who has an interest in public quiescence in the face of problematic emerging technical potentials? This long list of manifest and latent controversies should serve to remind us that technological innovation is inescapably a social phenomenon. Explicit or implicit choices have to be made on which no one is fully expert. Excellent technical organization, high levels of funding, and brilliant scientific intelligence contrast sharply with the rather creaky social institutions on which humanity depends for wisely and fairly transforming technical potentials into social realities. Readers may join me in being led to reflect on how far supposedly democratic, supposedly knowledge-based societies still have to go in arranging social institutions capable of shaping a technological civilization deserving of the term.
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