National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network

National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network

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What makes safety in the nanotech lab an “ethical issue”?

Robert McGinn, Professor, Dept. of Management Science and Engineering, and Director, Science, Technology, and Society (STS) Program, Stanford University; NNIN Ethics Investigator

Welcome to a new nanotech experiment, one devoted to exploring, of all things, ethics. The NNIN’s Social and Ethical Issues in Nanotechnology Portal is launching a series of columns on a topic that is -- or should be! -- of interest to all researchers at NNIN labs: ethical issues related to nanotechnology. 

If you’re skeptical that awareness of nanotech-related ethical issues is important for nanotech researchers, consider that NSF, the major funder of NNIN research and facilities, requires that inquiry into social and ethical issues (SEI) related to nanotech be an integral part of NNIN’s research mission.

In 2005-06, I surveyed researchers at 13 NNIN labs. The survey revealed that roughly three quarters of the respondents were (moderately, quite, or very) interested in issues of ethics related to their work, and four fifths believed it (moderately, quite, or very) important that such issues be considered. However, few respondents had ever taken a course on ethical issues related to science and engineering, and most rated themselves not well informed about nanotech-related ethical issues. In short, a substantial gap exists between the high degrees of researcher interest in and belief in the importance of considering nanotech-related ethical issues, and the low degrees of researcher exposure to and familiarity with such issues. Hopefully this column can help narrow this gap.

If there’a one nanotech-related ethical issue that most researchers regard as real and important, it’s that of safety. The focus of this first column will be on the ethical issue of safety as it relates to the activities of nanotech researchers in the labs where they work.

What makes safety in the nanotech lab an “ethical issue,” i.e., an issue of ethics? At bottom, ethics has to do with the relationship between actions and practices and the well-being of the parties affected by them. That safety is an ethical issue for nanotech researchers follows from the fact that acting without due regard to safety in the lab risks (i) harming fellow researchers, (ii) damaging lab equipment or facilities, (iii) harming the lab’s reputation, and (iv) harming the nanotech research enterprise itself, e.g., by giving citizens and their representatives reason to wonder whether the public should continue to fund that research. 

Few would dispute the claim that safety is the most important ethical issue that faces nanotech researchers. But it’s important to recognize that there’s more to ‘the ethics of safety’ in the nanotech lab than the general ethical responsibility of the researcher to not do anything s/he knows or suspects (or should know or suspect) will undermine or pose a non-trivial risk to safety in the nanotech lab.

Let’s try to shed further light on ‘the ethics of safety’ by identifying three important and more specific safety-related ethical responsibilities of nanotech researchers in the lab.

1)Take Suitable Precautions. All nanotech researchers should know that materials often exhibit unpredictable new properties and behaviors at the nanoscale. Therefore, the fact that a material is known to be safe at the macro- and micro-scales does not absolve the nanotech researcher of the ethical responsibility to act with precaution when working with a new material at the nanoscale. Such precautionary action would include things like alerting lab bench mates, other researchers in one’s lab, and lab safety managers that – and when! -- one plans to carry out a procedure with a new nanomaterial for the first time, and searching the scholarly literature beforehand for warnings about the effects of subjecting that nanomaterial to the procedure in question. The percentages of survey respondents who thought that not taking such basic precautions was ethically acceptable were too high. Having a precautionary mindset and taking suitable precautionary steps are essential for the nanotech lab researcher.   

2) Avoid Shortcutting. Nanotech researchers are often work under considerable time pressure. Therefore they may feel tempted to take shortcuts. Even if no harm comes from taking a particular shortcut, the researcher has an ethical responsibility to not take it. Departure from the rules specified and practices prescribed in the lab safety manual should be presumed to carry a heightened risk of causing harm. It is ethically irresponsible and unacceptable to take such shortcuts for reasons of personal convenience, time pressure, cost-cutting, or to realize a research objective before a competitor does.

The reader might think that taking a shortcut effectively prohibited by a lab safety manual is not an issue in today’s nanotech labs. But consider the following. In the survey, the following question was posed:

“For several weeks, a nanotech lab researcher has been taking a relatively safe, timesaving shortcut in doing her/his work. This shortcut clearly violates published laboratory procedures. So far, no unfortunate results have occurred because of this behavior. Other lab users know that s/he is taking the shortcut. Which of the following do you think would be the two most likely responses to this situation by users in your nanotech lab?”

  • Users would report the individual to lab management.
  • Users would cease having professional contact with the individual.
  • Users would approach the individual and try to persuade her/him to stop taking the shortcut.
  • Users would start taking rule-violating shortcuts of their own.
  • Users would take no action and the situation would continue unchanged.
  • Users would make this situation a matter of public debate at the lab.

The good news is that the most frequently checked response was option C (42%): trying to persuade the researcher to stop shortcutting. Adding the percentage of option C responses to those for options A and F yielded the encouraging finding that about 70% of the respondents chose an option that reflects the idea that a researcher’s ethical responsibility can require that s/he initiate action aimed at changing the troubling behavior of other researchers.

The bad news is that the next most frequently chosen option was E (24%): take no action and the situation would continue unchanged. Thus, roughly one in four respondents believed that the most likely or next-most-likely response in their labs would be one of non-action, of nothing being done to try to prevent harm that could result from shortcutting. This finding suggests that work is needed to create and sustain strong safety cultures in nanotech research labs. By virtue of their values, norms, incentives, and signs, such cultures would deter unduly risky action by, among other things, strongly promoting the view to researchers that acting to prevent harm risked by the irresponsible behavior of others is as much an ethical responsibility of researchers as not risking harm through irresponsible actions of their own.

3)  Support a Strong Lab Safety Culture.  It should not be assumed that all researchers new to a nanotech lab share the same understanding of what ethical responsibility in the lab requires of them. This understanding is not innate; newcomers must be socialized into the values, norms, and practices of a strong safety culture and nanotech researchers have an ethical responsibility to help with this ongoing effort. They should help train and encourage newcomers to do things in ways consistent with maintaining a strong safety culture in the lab. Moreover, when they are unable by persuasion to deter another researcher from actions that violate the lab’s safety culture, researchers have an ethical responsibility to report such behavior to laboratory authorities.

For their part, given their authority and power, lab directors and other top managers have an ethical responsibility to create, shape, and sustain a strong safety culture in the nanotech laboratory. This requires that they show, through their personal behavior, that they take preserving a strong safety culture seriously. This might be done by persuasively communicating to lab members the importance of acting with precaution and in accordance with established safety norms and practices, by organizing periodic safety meetings at which responsible and irresponsible lab practices are identified and discussed, and by treating shortcutting and other irresponsibile research practices as unacceptable conduct that will not be tolerated.

This expanded idea of what’s involved in the ethical issue of safety in the nanotech lab is every NNIN researcher’s ethical responsibility to adopt and implement.


I’d like to close this first column by strongly encouraging NNIN researchers to ask questions about ethical issues they’ve encountered in their work and to submit suggestions for nanotech-related ethics issues to be discussed in future columns. I’d welcome such questions and suggestions and make every effort to address them in future columns.

Questions and suggestions can be sent to me at this address: Thanks.

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