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Environmental Studies

Directing the Invisible: Citizen Involvement in Nanotechnology


An Introduction to the Science

Discussing the Issue:

-With the Government

-With Business

-With the Military

A Specific Example: NanoFET

References & Links

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Directing the Invisible: Citizen Involvement in Nanotechnology

Discussing the Issue

Though experts stress and preach caution, some evidence suggests that the caution of experts may not be sufficient to safely evaluate their products. Doctor Michael Siegrist conducted a detailed survey, which suggested that because nanotechnologists perceive nanotechnology as less dangerous than lay people do, they “might not be inclined to initiate the risk assessments that are expected by the public” (Berger, Trust Will…), though they understand the need for caution. Because they feel more comfortable around the technology, though they understand it and its dangers better than the lay public, they may not actually release safe products.

This difference of opinion in risk assessments between the public and experts serves as a key example of the main issue to consider during nanotechnology’s rapid evolution. If we look past the underlying ethical conundrums of some nanotechnologies, or the practical problems of nanotechnology such as potentially toxic nanoparticle emission, we see that what unites all the potential controversies is that of communication. The real issue of nanotechnology is how lay citizens, scientific experts, and the various businesses and agencies involved will interact with one another to direct its research and application.

This brings us back to the primary question: who should make the decisions about the growing presence and pace of nanotechnology research, and how can they do it? Ultimately, one can hope that this becomes an issue of who stands posed to reap the benefits, who stands to suffer the consequences, and the gravity of these two possibilities. However, the reality is that such decisions are largely out of the hands of the average citizen, though the results of the research are already becoming available for purchase by him or her. To become more involved in the process, then, let us first look at what forces are currently directing the progress of nanotechnology in the United States, and how.

In 2001, the Clinton administration succeeded in creating a National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), whose declared function is to “provide a multi-agency framework to ensure U.S. leadership in nanotechnology that will be essential to improved human health, economic well-being and national security” (NNI webpage). Since then, the federal budget has allocated a steadily increasing amount to the various agencies working under the NNI, spending over $1.3 billion in 2006 (NNI webpage). The NNI is partly responsible for the distribution of funding to and creation of various nanotechnology research projects and laboratories, totaling about $2 billion dollars a year when combined with small business interests, private investors, and local and state governments. According to the NNI website, however, this figure is only half of the average annual funding donations for nanotechnology research in the United States, with the other $2 billion coming from large industrial businesses.

So, as it stands, nanotechnologists are likely researching in the direct interests of either big business or the assembled agencies of the NNI. The role of the scientist has historically been one that attempts to avoid politics, but consider the great potential that nanotechnology has for military application, the strong emphasis the NNI places on interdisciplinary communication, and the age-old relation between big industry, science, and war. With so much funding and so many ties with the great presence of industry and governmental agency, the analysis of how nanotechnology is being researched requires an examination of the politics behind that funding.

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-Nanotechnology and the Government:

The congressional act which created the NNI, the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, is full of very powerful writing. It declares that the agencies involved shall work towards “ensuring United States global leadership in the development and application of nanotechnology,” (108th Congress Stat 1923 2.b.5) and that its goals and priorities will be set by the National Science and Technology Council (2.c.1). Though this seems to give an almost unshakeable direction to a somewhat cloistered gathering of politicians and scientists with limited connection to the concerns of the lay public, this bit of legislation stresses the importance of being open to public input – in fact, it encourages it. Section 2.b.10 declares that what is now the NNI shall, among other things, “[provide]…for public input and outreach to be integrated into the program by the convening of regular and ongoing public discussions, through mechanisms such as citizens’ panels, consensus conferences, and educational events, as appropriate.” (108th Congress Stat. 1923).

The “as appropriate” tagged onto the end of this line of legislation begs the question of how the National Nanotechnology Initiative plans to determine how much dialogue between officials and citizens is “appropriate,” and what sort of regulations are in place to ensure that these plans are actually carried through. Though the NNI website mentions numerous plans and research methods, including the support of efforts to assess and analyze public understanding and attitude of nanotechnology, or a component of research towards obtaining public input, it actually shows very little sign of taking care of such research.

Though breakthroughs in nanotechnology occur on a weekly basis, the NNI website itself links only a handful of research or outreach results on its website, the most recent being from October 2005. While the most detailed of these reports is an impressive 280 page discussion of social, political, economic and ethical concerns, it essentially cuts out the lay person because, even if he is represented, it is filtered through “the views of leading experts in academia, private sectors and government” (Mihail, 2). This is not to say that the concerns of said experts are invalid or not worthwhile; because they are so thoroughly educated on the subject matter their views will undoubtedly have many insights into the research and development of nanotechnology. Nevertheless, all of these insights are from within various branches relevant to the technology, and the report seems ultimately to disregard the potential validity of the public’s concern.

In fact, what much of the NNI’s research seems to be directed towards is not so much listening to and considering the public’s concerns, but learning just enough about them to soothe them over with public information sessions, and then argue amongst themselves about the rest. It seems, like many of its predecessors in governmental agency, designed to greet the public at the threshold of the technology, give them the facility tour, and then completely lock them out of any meaningful contribution.

Granted, it is a very good thing for people to be educated about nanotechnology, as many of the concerns about it are based on a lack of knowledge, and more and more opportunities to learn are appearing across the United States. On April 26, 2007, the Science Museum of Minnesota hosted a discussion on the various issues surrounding the introduction of nanotechnology-enabled medical technologies, to provide one very current example, and many other such discussions continue to cycle through public spheres of discussion. If a museum discussion is too formal, there is also the more informal option of a Café Scientifique, the quickly catching on “drink and talk science” tactic of uniting scientist and layperson. Though frequently sponsored by museums, these Cafés are usually very relaxed and gain strength from the museum’s support, and one of the many ways to become involved in bringing public discussion of nanotechnology to the ears of the professionals.

So there are opportunities for scientists to share their knowledge with lay citizens, and for those citizens to share their concerns with the scientists – but how much does this really matter? Truly it is important for a researcher to know whether his results will be appreciated by anyone, and so he will take the concerns of the potential users of his products, but the most important of those potential users are those that pay for the research. Even though the NNI has worked to educate the public, there seems to be a great want for the NNI to take heed of the concerns of the public it has educated, and so what it funds stays fairly consistent. Furthermore, as many of the NNI’s stated research goals include military hardware, there is little fear that the funding will meet an unresponsive target audience. There is one important fact that remains, however: the NNI gets the money it uses for funding from taxes, and so public outcry can be an important tool.

One can hope that if the public takes an active role in addressing this issue of lock-out, (the age-old “taxation and then spending without representation”), and calls for the “regular and ongoing” public discussions required by the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, the NNI might become more engaged in relating public interest to the direction of scientific funding. A similar movement can hopefully influence the funding from local and state governments, but this leaves two sources of funding with no direct responsibility to the public’s opinion: private sector funding, and large industry funding.

See the links at the bottom of the References and Links page to look at more developments and concerns.

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            -Nanotechnology and Business:

The almost untouchable pair of large industry and private sectors makes up more than half of the funds that power nanotechnology resource, so how can a concerned citizen hope to do anything to alter the production and distribution of potentially threatening technologies? Of course, it is in the interest of the business and entrepreneur to invest in research that will produce a product that customers want to buy, and so if it becomes widely known that people are too concerned about a certain technology for it to be profitable, the research will stop – or at least be temporarily tabled. Given the current model of capitalism at play in the United States, however, only a market majority of concerned citizens could have such an effect, leaving the marginalized dissenters without a voice. This can be particularly dangerous with a science as potentially widespread as nanotechnology, where if enough people are happy with one of its products to begin with, then the technology could catch on, dominate the market, and force other companies to adopt it to stay competitive. As a result, the alternative options to that technology previously available to the minority would become more and more difficult or even impossible to obtain. We have seen similar trends in our market from such things as mass coffee providers like Starbucks and Caribou, whose methods are sometimes criticized but have by now an essentially insurmountable market force.

Is this acceptable? We come now to a matter of how decisions about the release of various nanotechnologies ought to be regulated; what must be considered? As far as some are concerned, there is absolutely no reason why products containing nanomaterials should cause alarm for anyone, and so it is a moot point; meanwhile, others argue that the potential risks of toxicity from nanoparticle emissions are a serious danger, regardless of safety standards. If we consider how proximity breeds a disarming familiarity, then an effective regulation of technological distribution would have to include a risk analysis based on the opinions of both experts and laymen given the opportunity to learn functional details about the science. This goes along with a general concept proposed by (source - Moodle) for risk assessment called “extended peer review,” and could be greatly helpful in getting the universally affected U.S. citizen involved in determining what technologies could hit the market – unfortunately there is currently no governmental infrastructure for such lengthy and involved evaluations.

So barring a flood of letters to congressman that beg for an extended peer review system to be put in place – which is not impossible, but certainly has not happened yet – is there a way for citizens to express their concern about the funding and distribution decisions of large industry? Yes. The very recent issue of genetically modified organisms or GMOs being legalized for use as food products is a prime example of how a group of strong-minded citizens, if they stay well-informed of scientific developments, can petition various governmental agencies to initiate a neutral period of citizen input. The effectiveness of this input is a somewhat suspect issue, but the more people choose to be involved with the development of nanotechnology, the more likely that their education will validate their opinions in the eyes of the decision makers. For now, this seems like the best way for citizens to help regulate the commercial introduction of various nanotechnologies – keeping a finger on the pulse of its evolution, understanding the science involved, and being ready to object about something that might be dangerous.

See the links at the bottom of the References and Links page to look at more developments and concerns.

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-Nanotechnology and the Military:

Let us return to the perhaps more frightening issue of the NNI’s handling of the development of military nanotechnology. Though the military is certainly a part of our government, the ways in which its actions and research must be dealt with are rather different from those of the more public government, and so here I treat it as a different entity.

The first thing is to consider these three questions: what sorts of technologies are on the horizon, what might their consequences be, and most importantly, what say can the citizen have in decisions regarding this research? Although the funding for the NNI comes from the taxpayers and the taxpayers can theoretically use the power of representative democracy to alter what their taxes actually pay for, this issue becomes slightly confounded when the subject of debate is of a military nature. Because the primary tool of a citizen in influencing the opinions of an expert working in the government is his own knowledge of that expert’s field, and because specific knowledge of military research is frequently highly classified material, this tactic of validating the citizen’s opinion doesn’t exactly work.

While we as citizens may not yet be able to determine exactly what our military nanotechnology research is working towards, we can be fairly certain that it is working towards many things. The NNI website mentions a few of its past military achievements, including the development of more powerful explosives, cites nanotechnology as an “essential” component to improved national security, and lists its combined funding of the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at approximately $419 million in 2007. This is more than a third of the year’s total NNI budget, all being directed towards the development and application of new military hardware.

Now, I am not going to say outright that this is a faulty expenditure of our capital, because truly we do not live in a peaceful era, and if and when people that wish to attack the United States become able to do so with their own nanotechnology, then our research in nanotechnological weapons may be an invaluable asset in our defense. There is also sensibility in the idea of keeping such research top secret, so that enemies of the United States will not have access to any of our own ideas. However, there is a great historical precedent for what happens when scientists are asked to conduct their research in secret: the Manhattan Project. Technical success, but “nuclear secrets” were still spread across the globe, and a terrifyingly awesome destructive force was unleashed.

Again, I do not wish to make any ethical claim about the rightness of the United States’ research or use of nuclear technology, but rather that historical fact demonstrates how scientific progress will always become common knowledge eventually. In today’s information age, where knowledge can be transmitted from user to user instantaneously, combined with the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act’s provisions for the availability of knowledge between disciplines and agencies, these “secrets” will only be walked out faster. Therefore, it seems to me that there is no reason not to involve the citizenry of the United States in the direction of its military research, especially not when history has shown how many people can have ethical dilemmas about the results of that research.

Of course, once again, we return to the issue of reality. Military research is highly classified, only hinted at in publicly viewable documents, is most certainly being conducted in the sphere of nanotechnology, and will be representative of the United States and thus its citizens if and when it is put into use. Yet, so far, there seems to be no significant way to direct this research other than through a great protest of military research in general. Given all this, the condition of military nanotechnology seems almost not worth worrying about; for example, consider that there is most likely top secret military research being conducted in various other fields of technology as well, which go largely uncared for. Why should nanotechnology be any different?

A possible answer lies in some of the proposed threats of nanotechnology; that, in a military setting, the regulations on the safety of nanotechnology products could be far more lax in hopes of seeing results, and that this in turn could have far-reaching consequences. For example, one bit of progress that has been released to the public is the suggestion by the naval engineer John S. Canning, that a replacement of Isaac Asimov’s famous Laws of Robotics, (often considered to be the model cornerstone of an artificial intelligence program), be instituted for so-called “kill-bots,” so that they may kill humans after receiving approval from their human master(s). (Page) While the source itself is somewhat sensationalized, the fact of the matter is that autonomous robots are becoming more and more apparent on the front lines of war, and this article does suggest how lethal their uses are becoming. Combined with the somewhat disturbing potential of nanotechnology to provide human-like capacity in artificial intelligence, the progress of nanotechnology research in the growing military sphere of robotic warfare holds the potential to produce thinking, learning, killing machines – if, that is, the research and development is not tempered by a concerned citizenry.

In all honesty, the likelihood of such an event strikes me personally as very minor, but not impossible. Those words, that “today’s science fiction can become tomorrow’s reality,” seem to ring fairly true here. And for those that see no dangers in investing more than a third of our federal nanotechnology research fund in military development, at the very least the possibility that non-military technologies could provide us with so much more must be considered. For example, might not it be better to petition the government to redirect DOD funding under the NNI towards the National Institutes of Health, or some other agency to help Professor Dai’s research, that may someday find a cure for AIDS?

So it is important for citizens to be involved in the direction and regulation of military nanotechnology research: the big question here, then, is how to go about this? As previously discussed, the access to such discussion is essentially nonexistent in the U.S. government’s current state. However, beyond extreme political movements to reshape the structure of military intelligence from within our own borders – which is not necessarily a bad idea, but perhaps out of the reach of most citizens without training in politics and group organization – we as individual citizens of a country can work towards a gradual change in the process of managing military research by looking to international sources of nanotechnology stewardship.

Though there are not exactly international organizations dedicated to the regulation of individual countries’ military research, there are such organizations that work to provide a global perspective from which to evaluate the potential risks of nanotechnology. A primary example of this type of organization is the International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON). By being involved with organizations like ICON, examining their peer reviews and news alerts, citizens begin to be influenced by a more global perspective. This in turn could, combined with a continuing effort of the citizenry to mix lay perspectives with those of the experts, begin to impose a heightened sense of responsibility, or at least restraint, on military research.

See the links at the bottom of the References and Links page to look at more developments and concerns.

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Last updated:  5/02/2007


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