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

Nanotechnology offers solutions to looming global crises such as energy and water shortages—but the effort requires research from across academic disciplines.

By Cyrus C. M. Mody | November 2, 2007

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.

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.