National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network

National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network

Serving Nanoscale Science, Engineering & Technology

Intro to SEI

One of the expectations that we are faced with is that of attempting to define SEI. What are the social and ethical issues of the technoscientific field of nano?

If answers to this question are inevitably abstract and general its because there is no one answer. It is not possible to provide a nano-practitioner with a checklist that will allow her to "check-off" social and ethical issues one-by-one.

Not only is this an impossible task to accomplish, it would also be, in some aspects, counterproductive. If we could circumscribe SEI to a list of say 10 items, then accountability would end when these were ticked-off, there would be a high risk of ignoring or not recognizing emerging issues (in a field that is constantly changing this risk is real) and, finally, it would divert attention from the fact that all technologies and sciences are embedded in social and ethical contexts, nano is not special in this way.

Therefore, our goal here is less to provide answers and more to help formulate questions.

We want to challenge the assumption that science and technology are merely technical affairs, understandable and describable in the language of 1s and 0s, physics, chemistry or mathematics.
Instead, science and technology are deeply embedded in the social world: in order to understand the technologies and sciences that are being produced one must examine the social world that hosts (and sustains) them, and vice-versa.

In a sense then, all technologies are sociotechnologies, and all sciences are sociosciences: not only are they materializations of a given view of society and behavior, they also enhance or constrain social dynamics.

On this account we put forward a number of questions that are good starting points to begin your nano-SEI inquiries. They apply equally as well whether you are developing a product or doing pure research.

  • For whom and what purposes are you developing your product/research?
  • What problem is your "product" trying to solve?
  • Who will benefit from it? And, conversely, who won't?
  • Who will have access to it? Who will be excluded?
  • Who will own it? And, how can you assure access to it?
  • How will it affect and reconfigure social, economical and political relationships?
  • Are there dangers involved with its development? (e.g. safety, health, pollution)? How can you minimize them?