With nanotechnology expected to become a $1 trillion industry by 2015, Arizona State University will open a center to study the societal impacts of the burgeoning interest in the miniscule.
The Center for Nanotechnology in Society will be launched with a public forum on ethical, personal privacy and other issues raised by nanotechnology from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday at the College of Law at ASU’s Tempe campus.
As science and engineering conducted on a scale 1,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, nanotechnology has the potential to improve human health and welfare in revolutionary ways, for example, by creating nanobots that could perform microsurgery or in-body sensors that could monitor a person’s health. The federal government is spending $1 billion a year on nanotech research to advance the manipulation of structures down to the size of molecules and atoms.
Already nanomaterials are being used in computers, cosmetics, stainresistant fabrics, sports equipment, paints and medical diagnostic tests. Scientists also hope to use nanomaterials to help clean up polluted sites.
But nanodevices too small to be seen by the human eye also have potentially malevolent uses such as controlling human brains or recording and transmitting private conversations, raising questions of how nanotechnology should be regulated. Proponents of firmer controls say the dangers could lead to a crisis of public confidence of the type that has afflicted nuclear power and genetically modified foods.
Several existing laws such as the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and the Federal Hazardous Substances Act have provisions that apply to nanomaterials. And agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission are in place to administer regulations of nanomaterials.
But critics say those laws and agencies are inadequate to deal with the full range of risks that may be posed by nanotechnology.
Those are among the issues that will be discussed by panelists at the forum, described by nanotechnology center director David Guston as “the beginning of an unprecedented effort to expand our knowledge of how emerging technologies like nanotechnology interact with society.”
Others who will participate are ASU President Michael Crow; George Poste, director of the Biodesign Institute at ASU, which is engaged in nanotech research; and Jonathan Moreno, professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Virginia.
ASU was awarded a $6.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish the center and operate it for five years. The center is a collaboration between the Biodesign Institute and the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, a group within the ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Thus the center will bring nanotech scientists together with social scientists, Poste said.
“Of course technology carries risk,” he said. “It is important to flag the risks and analyze them so the politicians can develop policies to deal with the risks. It is the obligation of scientists to do that.”
Guston said the center has three missions: Researching the ethical, legal, economic and other interactions that nanotechnology will have with society; training students about those issues; and reaching out to scientists and the public to create discussion and interaction. The center may also make recommendations to policy makers, he said.
“We want to create the capacity to govern nanotechnology more wisely,” he said. “It doesn’t involve just government, but also industry and nongovernmental organizations. Everyone is involved.”
History has shown that once a discovery is made, it’s difficult to prevent its broad distribution, Guston said. But he added there are ways to keep new technologies out of the wrong hands.
“In 1945 or 1950, if you had asked people how many countries would have nuclear weapons by now, they probably would have thought quite a few more than the number we actually have,” he said. “The same is true of biological and chemical weapons. There are agreements to control their distribution that work reasonably well.”
The forum is free and open to the public. More information is available at