This presentation reports on findings from a three-year project related to National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) research on social and ethical issues raised by nanotechnology. The study was conducted at the University of Washington in Seattle, one of the major "nano hubs" in the United States. The purpose of this study was to elicit views regarding social and ethical issues posed by emerging science and technology from scientists and engineers actively involved in research and development of nanotechnologies. Methods included three-years of fieldwork, participant observation, and intensive interviews with 20 research scientists associated with the University of Washington Center for Nanotechnology. The scientists interviewed addressed three main areas: 1. Problems with the term "nanotechnology", which they described as largely "non-useful" as it applies to a wide range of unrelated processes and applications; however they also acknowledged the importance of the term in obtaining funding and in appealing to the public; 2. Social and ethical issues related to emerging science and technologies, which were largely perceived as limited to public misunderstanding fueled by "science fiction scenarios", and 3. Issues of collaboration, including recommendations for achieving more effective collaboration between social scientists and ethicists. The findings suggest that there is much disagreement and ambivalence within the scientific community about what "nanotechnology" is and what it is not. As one interviewee noted, scientists are still trying to work out exactly what they mean by "nanotechnology". This lack of clarity has implications for how "nanotech" can be accurately communicated to the public. Additionally, findings indicate that scientists view social and ethical issues related to emerging science and technologies largely in terms of public misunderstanding that ought to be addressed through “public education,” rather than "public engagement." Implications of this distinction for public communication efforts are considered and general recommendations for improving collaborative efforts between social scientists and scientists are presented.

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Scientific perspectives on social and ethical issues related to nanotechnology

Deborah Bassett   University of Washington

This presentation reports on findings from a three-year project related to National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) research on social and ethical issues raised by nanotechnology. The study was conducted at the University of Washington in Seattle, one of the major "nano hubs" in the United States. The purpose of this study was to elicit views regarding social and ethical issues posed by emerging science and technology from scientists and engineers actively involved in research and development of nanotechnologies. Methods included three-years of fieldwork, participant observation, and intensive interviews with 20 research scientists associated with the University of Washington Center for Nanotechnology. The scientists interviewed addressed three main areas: 1. Problems with the term "nanotechnology", which they described as largely "non-useful" as it applies to a wide range of unrelated processes and applications; however they also acknowledged the importance of the term in obtaining funding and in appealing to the public; 2. Social and ethical issues related to emerging science and technologies, which were largely perceived as limited to public misunderstanding fueled by "science fiction scenarios", and 3. Issues of collaboration, including recommendations for achieving more effective collaboration between social scientists and ethicists. The findings suggest that there is much disagreement and ambivalence within the scientific community about what "nanotechnology" is and what it is not. As one interviewee noted, scientists are still trying to work out exactly what they mean by "nanotechnology". This lack of clarity has implications for how "nanotech" can be accurately communicated to the public. Additionally, findings indicate that scientists view social and ethical issues related to emerging science and technologies largely in terms of public misunderstanding that ought to be addressed through “public education,” rather than "public engagement." Implications of this distinction for public communication efforts are considered and general recommendations for improving collaborative efforts between social scientists and scientists are presented.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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