A great deal of money is spent on nanotech research, but little of it on societal and ethical implications: a summit is needed to share findings and failures. - David Berube, University of South Carolina
In 2006, governments around the world will spend four billion dollars to support research and development in nanoscale sciences and technologies. Roughly one quarter of that money will come from the US government, through the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).
In an opinion piece for Nano Today, David Berube says:
Recently, I read a jolting comment. Only 0.4% of the entire NNI budget is dedicated to research on the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology (SEIN). I have seen references ranging from 4% up to 11%, drawn from the rhetoric of bureaucrats, especially from the National Science Foundation.
So, how much are we actually spending? And how much should be spent?
Last year, DuPont CEO Chad Holliday and Environmental Defense (ED) President Fred Krupp issued a joint statement calling on the US government to reprioritize nanotech spending and devote 10% to study environmental, health, and safety (EHS) risks. We applauded their intent, but we also said that addressing those risks alone was not enough.
Part of the misunderstanding may be in terminology. Note that Holliday and Krup were talking about EHS, while Berube is looking at SEIN. Are those the same thing?
CRN typically calls for study of the environmental and societal implications of molecular manufacturing. When we say "environmental and societal implications," we use that as a catch-all term to include ethical, legal, social, political, economic, military, and humanitarian issues as well.
In assessing someone's advocacy for study of nanotech implications, then, there are at least three key questions that must be asked:
- What kind of consequences are they interested in addressing? Health and environmental only? Ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI)? Ask them to define their acronyms and specify the range of issues they mean to cover.
- What level of nanotech development are they referring to? It might be only today's nanoscale technologies; it might be up to the second or third generation of advanced nanotechnology; or it might include the implications of exponential general-purpose nanofactory production. Clearly, the differences are crucial.
- Are they speaking about implications only for one country (e.g., the US), or do they intend to consider effects in other societies and cultures? Are they prepared to look at issues on a global scale?
Regarding this last point, Berube highlights a problem:
...after examining SEIN efforts in the UK, Switzerland, Germany, and the wider European Union, it became incredibly difficult to learn of research in other countries and regions, especially South America, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Asia.
He concludes his opinion piece with "a call for researchers to meet internationally: not a mega-conference per se, but a summit to learn what work is ongoing globally and to identify gaps in SEIN research."
This is a good idea, especially if the researchers will begin by answering the three questions I posed above. Of course, something like what he describes has already begun. Last month, I was among a group of 30 researchers from around the world who met in Switzerland to do just what Berube says -- to "identify gaps" in nanotech risk governance.
The wheels of preparation are slowly...very slowly...starting to turn. We hope the pace will quicken, because there is much to do, and our time may be growing short.