science and ethics in nanotechnology


Nanotechnology (NT) is a rapidly progressing field. Advances will have a tremendous impact on fields such as materials, electronics, and medicine. A thorough review of the current literature, governmental funding, and policy documents was undertaken. Despite the potential impact of NT, and the abundance of funds, our research revealed that there is a paucity of serious, published research into the ethical, legal, and social implications of NT. As the science leaps ahead, the ethics lags behind. There is danger of derailing NT if the study of ethical, legal, and social implications does not catch up with the speed of scientific development. (Some figures in this article are in colour only in the electronic version) In August 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, an organization called ETC held several workshops calling for a moratorium on the deployment of nanomaterials . Meanwhile, over the past few years expenditure on research and development in nanotechnology (NT) has increased dramatically . These two trends seem to be on a collision course towards a showdown of the type that we saw with GM crops (indeed, ETC, previously known as RAFI, coined the phrase ‘terminator seed’). As the science of NT leaps ahead, the ethics lags behind. Activist groups have appropriately identified this gap, and begun to exploit it. We believe that there is danger of derailing NT if serious study of NT’s ethical, environmental, economic, legal, and social implications (we call this NE 3 LS research) does not reach the speed of progress in the science. As the science leaps ahead . . . NT is a rapidly expanding field, focused on the creation of functional materials, devices, and systems through the control of matter on the nanometre scale, and the exploitation of novel phenomena and properties at that length scale [3]. Several observations indicate that all of society, not just scientists, needs to take NT seriously. First, there have been major scientific and technological advances in microscopy, material science, molecular-level manipulation, and scientific understanding at the borderline between classical and quantum physics. A biomolecular motor, made of inorganic nickel propellers and powered by an ATPase enzyme, was created over two years ago . In a major step toward downsizing electronic components, single-molecule transistors have been created . Nanoparticle research has generated products including a nanoparticle carrier able to cross the blood–brain barrier to deliver a chemotherapeutic for the treatment of brain tumours and gold nanoparticle probes that detect DNA from biological warfare agents such as anthrax . Second, evaluation of the field by prominent scientists leaves little doubt that NT is going to lead to a major revolution that is going to have a significant impact on society. Dr Richard Smalley, Nobel laureate in chemistry, believes that ‘the impact of NT on health, wealth, and the standard of living for people will be at least the equivalent of the combined influences of microelectronics, medical imagin

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