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Mapping the Terrain of the Nano Frontier

Nano crystalsAdvances in nanotechnology may improve drug delivery, water filtration, antimicrobial product coatings, cancer treatments, and methods for reducing environmental pollution, but despite the bright promise of the field, public policy has yet to address many questions about the safety, regulation, and ethics of nanotech.

To grapple with this gap between research and regulation, the Center on Nanotechnology and Society held its 2nd Annual Conference on Nanopolicy this past Friday. Moderated by the Society’s director Nigel Cameron, the conference opened with presentations from researchers, scholars, and staffers, each offering a different view on how nanotechnology will change the way we live, work, govern, maintain security, and respond to disasters.

Bill Kojola of the AFL-CIO told the audience that those who work with nanotechnologies in manufacturing keep asking, “Is this the next asbestos?” He also emphasized that the AFL-CIO does not have a lot of researchers to investigate the possible workplace hazards of nanotech and ensure the safety of workers.

Charles Rubin, a philosopher from Duquesne University claimed that in discussing Nanotech Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues, the ethical questions are paramount. In his vision, nanotech ethics cannot say that “anything goes.” Rather, he said that policy-makers must be resolute and decide what is “good” nanotechnology and promote it.

A second series of presentations focused on the public understanding of nanotech. Margaret Glass, the communications coordinator for Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network said that museums are well-poised to inform the public about nanotech science because that public puts a high level of trust into them. She cited survey data indicating that over 80% of respondents say that they trust museums.

Dietram Scheufele, communications professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, rejected the idea that public understanding is about education; rather, he said, it’s about framing. He explained that the general public cannot be expected to learn all of the details of nanotech risk, so it is up to scientists to frame the risks and benefits of nanotechnology in familiar terms before political groups do the framing for them.

Jonathan Moreno, Science Progress Editor-In-Chief, explained that context often alters acceptable riskā€”and can adversely effect policy decisions. For instance, during a time of war, when the survival of the country is at stake, the state may consider certain kinds of risky human-subject research acceptable; whereas in times of peace, the state would consider that same research to pose an unacceptable risk. “The state’s primary prerogative,” he argued, “is not to protect the physical security of its citizens. Its prerogative is to protect itself.”

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