The emerging science of nanotechnology promises new miracles to enhance our lives — digital monitors as flexible as plastic wrap or steaks without cows.
But in the wrong hands, it could produce instruments of wrongdoing ranging from artificial red blood cells that could unfairly enhance athletic performances to microscopic eavesdropping devices that could be implanted in our bodies without our knowledge to deadly germs that could target a specific individual or race.
To study the possible consequences of nanotechnology on society, the National Science Foundation has awarded a $6.2 million grant to the new Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University. The center will become part of a network of NSFfunded centers and projects dealing with nanotechnology ethics.
"The center . . . will be devoted to interdisciplinary studies of nanotechnology with a real social commitment," ASU President Michael Crow said in a statement. "It will help us determine the impact of nanotechnology on society, and it will allow us to see how society affects the course of nanotechnology research."
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of molecular-size materials to create new products and processes. It has potential applications in areas as diverse as drug delivery and discovery, environmental sensing, manufacturing and computing.
The ASU center will attempt to understand the interactions of technology and society to improve policy choices and technological outcomes for everyone, said David Guston, an ASU professor in political science and the principal investigator at the center.
"We will help scientists, technologists and citizens develop a better understanding of where scientific and social values come from, what they mean and how they shape the direction that nanotechnology takes," Guston said.
Other ASU investigators are Marilyn Carlson of the Center for Research on Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology, and Anne Schneider of the School of Justice and Social Inquiry.
Major public concerns surrounding nanotechnology included regulation, human health risks, environmental effects, privacy and "playing God," according to a recent report from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.