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

The NNI recognizes that scientists, engineers, and policy makers must work with scholars from the social sciences and humanities to address questions surrounding the social and political consequences of nanotech’s research methods and results. The initiative mandates that approximately 4% of the $1 billion in annual cross-agency federal funding for nanotechnology research be set aside for investigations into its ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI). This recommendation has resulted in the founding of two Centers for Nanotechnology in Society, one at the University of California at Santa Barbara and one at Arizona State University. These centers house interdisciplinary groups of social science and humanities scholars interested in nanotech issues and are funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the federal Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center network, a nationwide group of academic facilities that sponsor social science and humanities research on nanotechnology.

According to Neal Lane, the former director of the National Science Foundation, a large portion of the ELSI research funding is intended to “minimize the likelihood that the public develops polarized perceptions of nanotechnology based on rumor and supposition, and hence avoid potential overreactions such as those that occurred with GMO[s].” For the year 2008, $58 million has been set aside for toxicological research on the potential health risks of carbon nanotubes, quantum dots, dendrimers, and other nanomaterials, and $40 million is earmarked for studies that gauge public perception of nanotechnology. Endeavors initiated by these monies will include public opinion surveys, media monitoring, community education, conferences, and debates on the opportunities and potential consequences of nanotechnology.

Previous research has found that the general public has heard little or nothing about nanotechnology, so it has fluid opinions of the enterprise. In the absence of familiarity most people base their opinions on comparisons to other fields or events that they regard as similar. This could be good or bad news for nanotechnology. If various groups come to regard nanotech as having positive outcomes similar to microelectronics or pharmaceuticals, then planners can proceed on their current course in symbiosis with those groups. But if those groups come to see nanotech as having negative outcomes similar to Bhopal, Chernobyl, or the Dust Bowl, then nanotech organizations will need to revisit their plans and build stronger relationships with the communities and groups they serve.

The social sciences and humanities have significant roles to play in nanotechnology beyond addressing the issues of public perception and media coverage. Few scientists and engineers have the time, expertise, or resources to survey exhaustively the expanse of societal needs that their research could help address, nor do most scientists and engineers have the broad view needed to construct research programs that solve some social problems without exacerbating others. Social scientists and humanities scholars do not have all the answers, but they do have information and insights that can help, not just in disseminating the products of nanotechnology, but also in constructing a socially useful nanotech enterprise from the beginning.

Nanotechnology’s proponents have overused the analogy to biotechnology’s history, and they have allowed this analogy to guide their funding of social science and humanities research. In particular, the biotech analogy has led to an overemphasis on the real and perceived toxicological risks from nanoparticles and the role of media and activist groups in shaping perceptions. Although research on real and perceived toxicological risks is needed, that research will contribute little if public perceptions are not put in a larger historical and social context. Scientists and planners must bring the full range of social science and humanities expertise to bear on a variety of questions, from the role that science fiction plays in public perception, to the possible nature and impact of regional clustering, to the effect on academia and the marketplace.

Cyrus C. M. Mody is the former program manager for nanotechnology and innovation studies at CHF’s Center for Contemporary History and Policy.