Perspectives: Tiny Technology, Enormous Implications

Perspectives: Tiny Technology, Enormous Implications



Tiny Technology, Enormous Implications

The purpose of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is to promote nanoscale science and technology in a way that, so far as possible, benefits U.S. citizens in particular and humanity in general. To this end, the NNI has organized and funded considerable research on the environmental, health, and safety (EHS) aspects of nanomaterials (including associated regulatory capacity and best research and workplace practices) and on education and outreach (involving workforce preparation, educating the public about nanotechnology, and encouraging public acceptance of nanotechnology). However, preemptively identifying and responding to broader social and ethical issues that are likely to emerge as nanotechnologies become widely disseminated has not been a priority within the NNI. This is unfortunate, not only because there are serious social and ethical issues associated with nanotechnology, but also because the nanotechnology revolution invites and the NNI offers a historic opportunity to prospectively consider the broad societal effects of a potentially transformative technology during regulatory and policy design. If this opportunity is seized, the NNI could be an instrument for fostering both technological and social progress.

Nanotechnology, like all technologies, is a thoroughly social phenomenon. Technologies emerge from society. They are made possible and encouraged by society. They are implemented in and disseminated through society, and they in turn have effects on society. Thus, when it comes to identifying and addressing social and ethical issues associated with nanotechnology, the features of both nanotechnology and society are relevant.

Consider, for example, the issue of distributive environmental justice. It is now well established that low-income communities and communities with high minority populations are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. What does this have to do with nanotechnology? One possible answer is that although this risk distribution is definitely unequal, probably unjust, and possibly a form of discrimination, it has nothing to do with nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is not the cause of this distribution of environmental hazards. Moreover, there is nothing unjust about the capacity to characterize, control, and construct on the nanoscale or about the practice of doing so. This reasoning would lead one to conclude that the environmental justice issue does not appear to be a nanotechnology issue.

On the other hand, a significant feature of the social context into which nanotechnology is emerging is that enormous inequalities in the distributions of environmental hazards is allowed, and in many ways enabled and encouraged, by existing social institutions and practices. These include the role of cost/benefit analysis in facility-siting decisions, zoning and land planning patterns that are legacies of segregation, the differential political influence of communities that want to block the siting of certain types of facilities, and corporate influence and the marginalization of local communities in land-use decisions. Moreover, even without knowing exactly what nanomanufacturing processes are going to be developed and implemented or the products that they are going to produce, it now appears that many of them will entail potential environmental risks. According to this line of thought, environmental justice is a nanotechnology issue, and responding to it cannot be accomplished through technology design, technological fixes, and risk management alone. It requires addressing the underlying social and institutional causes of environmental injustice.


Once the significance of the social context of nanotechnology is brought to the fore, social and ethical issues associated with nanotechnology materialize in legion. All manner of problematic features of social contexts are relevant to the implementation, dissemination, control, and oversight of, responsibility for, access to, protection from, benefits and burdens of, and decisionmaking regarding nanotechnology. The upshot for the NNI’s responsible development program is that to be comprehensive it must address the problematic features of the relevant social contexts into which nanotechnology is emerging.

The social context issues associated with nanotechnology concern unequal access to resources and opportunities, institutionalized and non-institutionalized discrimination, differential social and political power, corporate influence and lack of accountability, inadequate governmental capacity, challenges to individual rights and autonomy, marginalization of noneconomic values, technology control and oversight, the role of technology in creating and solving problems, and more generally, those aspects of our society and institutions that fail to meet reasonable standards of justice. Responsible development of nanotechnology must consider how this development will interact with the current social context. This is a job for the NNI.

Moreover, the NNI affords as good an opportunity to address these problems as is ever likely to present itself. There is within the NNI a substantial and apparently genuine commitment to promoting nanotechnology as a social good, as well as a recognition that considerable effort in support of responsible development will facilitate public acceptance of the technology. There also is some acknowledgement that there are significant social and ethical issues, above and beyond public outreach, infrastructure development, and EHS, that need to be addressed. “Other social and ethical issues” do at least find mention (though not specification) in core NNI documents, and there has been some effort within the NNI to identify them, for example in the report Nanotechnology: Societal Implications—Maximizing Benefits for Humanity.

Furthermore, there is awareness within the NNI that substantial policy and regulatory changes may be needed in order to build adequate government capacity for responding to the challenges posed by nanotechnology. It is not often that the federal government openly encourages and financially supports (through the National Science Foundation) rethinking the organization, capacity, mandates, and approaches of its frontline regulatory agencies. This is important because many of the relevant social features that give rise to social context issues are under the authority of federal regulatory agencies; for example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a record of being slower to remediate environmental hazards in high-minority communities and was charged with leading the implementation of President Clinton’s Executive Order “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” Social context issues certainly do not start and end with federal regulatory agencies, but many of the issues do involve them one way or another. Therefore, consideration of the issues needs to inform assessments of existing governmental capacity and efforts to build additional capacity.

Finally, the NNI is a comprehensive research program along several dimensions, in the number of government agencies involved, the number of disciplines involved, and the types of research (basic, applied, social, and scientific) being pursued. It has already developed substantial intra- and interagency coordination (such as the Interagency Working Group on Nanotechnology Environmental and Health Implications) and coordinators (such as the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office) to help avoid redundancy, define research needs, and share data. Therefore, it affords an opportunity to take an encompassing perspective on the relationship among technology, government, environment, and society in the context of evaluating existing federal regulatory institutions.

The broad, systematic, prospective rethinking of federal regulatory institutions invited by the nanotechnology revolution and encouraged by the NNI is in contrast to how the regulatory landscape developed to look the way it currently does. Historically, regulation to protect and promote the public good has been enacted in response to largely unanticipated problems or crises. A paradigmatic example of this is the regulatory response to the chemical revolution that followed World War II. The story of postwar adoption of a range of synthetic organochlorine pesticides such as DDT is one of unfettered technological enthusiasm, near-indiscriminate use across a range of sectors openly promoted by federal agencies, a stress on industry self-regulation, and little thought (in government at least) about the potentially harmful long-term health effects of these substances on wildlife or people. Concerns about such effects grew more acute as evidence of harm accumulated in the years that followed, but direct regulatory authority lay in the hands of agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose primary role was to promote the use of those same substances for the economic benefit of their clientele. Not until the creation of the EPA in 1970 did protection of the environment enjoy an institutional base within the federal establishment. That journey took nearly a quarter-century and in many respects is far from complete.

A cumulative legacy of the reactive, piecemeal approach that has characterized U.S. federal regulation is a patchwork and mismatch of regulations, regulatory strategies, organizational structures, and organizational resources that are not optimal for the promotion and protection of the public good. Consider food safety, for example. When the first known U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the so-called “mad cow” disease, came to light in December 2003, many Americans no doubt were startled to find that no single federal agency has jurisdiction over the nation’s meat industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture keeps watch over slaughterhouses and has the authority to recall potentially tainted or diseased meat, but the Food and Drug Administration (located in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) monitors cattle feed and the facilities that produce it. Authority over food safety is fragmented among at least 15 federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security. This is the result of bureaucratic accretion over time by multiple designers (different Congresses, administrations, and the institutes and agencies themselves), not broad foresight.

A history of regulation by accretion, analogy, and reaction to crises may once have been understandable given the lack of existing precedents, statues, mandates, organizational infrastructures, experience, and public expectations. However, now we have knowledge gained through experience. We have gone through decades of trial and error on different regulatory strategies, ranging from industry self-regulation to “top-down” bureaucratic direction and have studied models from other nations. We have learned quite a lot about effective institutional design and what works in different domains. Moreover, public expectations about government are more clearly defined, and we have a better understanding of how to meet those expectations and the resources required to do it. We have regulatory institutions already in place on which to build. We understand the social and ethical challenges associated with regulating emerging technologies better than we have in the past.

The NNI provides a unique opportunity to make social progress through broadly considered, innovative, forward-looking regulatory and policy design. Certainly, not all of the broader social challenges associated with technology would be resolved. Of course, mistakes would be made. Nevertheless, it would be a shame to let this chance pass. If history is any indication, it could be quite some time before another opportunity of this caliber presents itself.

Ronald Sandler () is assistant professor of philosophy and a member of the Nanotechnology and Society Research Group at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. Christopher J. Bosso is professor of political science and associate dean of the School of Social Science, Public Affairs, and Public Policy at Northeastern University.