Garden of Nanotech: A Role for the Social Sciences and Humanities in Nanotechnology

Boston Museum of Science

Teachers at the Boston Museum of Science's annual Nanotech Symposium try NanoVenture, a Monopoly-style board game developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for high school and college students. Boston Museum of Science

In 2002 Richard Smalley spoke before the Congressional Hispanic Science and Literacy Forum in Edinburg, Texas. As one of the discoverers of the buckyball, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, the director of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University, and a frequent witness at congressional committee hearings on science and energy policies, Smalley was an ideal choice to sum up the current state of science and technology in the United States. On his way to the forum Smalley crafted a metaphor for scientific research of the future, calling it the “garden of the physical sciences.” From this garden researchers from across academic disciplines could harvest solutions for what Smalley saw as the major crises facing the modern world: energy and water shortages, hunger, an ailing environment, inefficient education, overpopulation, war and terrorism, poverty, obesity, and a lack of leisure time.

Before his death in 2005 Smalley was an influential advocate for the view that nanotechnology, as a new transdisciplinary research area, has the potential to find solutions to each of these looming crises and make our world and the people in it happier, healthier, and more efficient. Nanotechnology proponents continue to paint a compelling picture of the potential for new nanomaterials to solve these problems: nanostructured membranes can provide clean water; microfabricated quantum dots can convert light into electricity; and carbon nanotube transistors can make computing cheaper, faster, and available to more people around the world.

However, emerging technologies carry with them cause for apprehension among scientists, politicians, the media, and the public at large. Will nanoparticles be nearly ineradicable environmental contaminants, or will they provide much-needed health benefits? Will nanotechnology’s biomedical applications prove so expensive and specialized that they create even greater inequalities in our health-care sector? Will such nanotech applications as tiny sensors enable massive, unsuspected surveillance of citizens? Scholars and policy makers frequently use the history of biotechnology as a reference point to predict nanotechnology’s development and its public perception in the coming years. Many nanotech proponents believe that the lesson from biotechnology is that the media and watchdog groups will unduly alarm the public and derail support for nanotechnology, as ostensibly happened to biotechnology when environmental groups warned the public about toxicological risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

To avoid the same public concerns that biotechnology has provoked, nanotech’s scientists and policy makers conclude that they must educate the public on the goals, possibilities, and potential consequences of this emerging field, and that they must listen to the public’s apprehensions and needs when shaping their research. Using biotechnology’s historical development as an indicator of nanotechnology’s future may or may not be justified; scholars disagree. But the comparison has sparked interest in the ways that nanotechnology’s development will affect the public’s perception—and the ways that the public will affect nanotechnology.

The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) works in part to address these concerns. Founded in 2001 after a decade of Smalley’s urging, the NNI is a federal body that coordinates research on new nanostructured materials and the socioeconomic consequences and public awareness of nanotechnology.