Social Science Issues to be Considered During the Development of Nanotechnology

Topics Covered

Background

The Five Main Categories for Studying the Social Science Dimension of Nanotechnology

Current Social Science Debate on Nanotechnology Matters

Social Science Issues That Are Unique to Nanotechnology

Debate Regarding the Emergence of the Human-Machine Interface

How the Human-Machine Interface Might Affect Human Behaviour

Implications of Nanotechnology for Social Science Policy

Some Themes to Be Addressed by Social Scientists Working in Nanotechnology

Unique Research Opportunities that Nanotechnology Might Offer Social Scientists

Social Science Research into Nanotechnology Should be Happening Now

Social Science Research Projects into Nanotechnology Will Need to Be Flexible

Conclusion - Recommendations for Involving Social Scientists in Future Nanotechnology Projects

Background

Social scientists have the capacity and willingness to take on the issues surrounding nanotechnology. The study of nanotechnology should be organised around a set of key issues and manageable sub-questions. It is imperative to find distance from the simplistic, polarised debate that appears to be emerging.

The Five Main Categories for Studying the Social Science Dimension of Nanotechnology

The issues surrounding nanotechnology can be classified into five categories:

1. Issues related to ensuring that nanotechnology develops its potential;

2. Issues relating to social awareness of nanotechnology and public involvement in science;

3. Social and economic issues that will be concurrent with, or even intensified by, nanotechnology;

4. Issues associated with any new technology;

5. Issues unique to nanotechnology.

Current Social Science Debate on Nanotechnology Matters

There is overlap between the categories, and even those in the last group will not exist in isolation. The first two issues directly reflect the terms of the debate so far. Attending to the other issues will serve to move it forward and enrich the reflection surrounding it that will inevitably occur in the coming years. At this stage, though, it would be foolhardy to think one could list all the topics that could fall under each category. We will however list illustrative examples under each. 

•        Issues related to ensuring that nanotechnology develops its potential: technology transfer; the relationship between firms, governments, and universities; R and D investment; financial institutions; entrepreneurship.

•        Issues relating to social awareness and involvement in science: the role of the public in science policy formation; the perceived needs of people for technological advances; the role of workplaces, non-governmental organisations, and consumer groups in democratic processes; ethical issues.

•        Social and economic issues that will be concurrent with, or even intensified by, nanotechnology: commercialisation of science; the UK’s perceived innovation problem; intellectual property; risk management and regulation; privacy and the growth of information and its ownership and control; ageing.

•        Issues associated with any new technology: managing the unforeseeable nature of problems; organizational development; change management; user-friendliness; skills that are needed to produce and use a new technology.

•        Issues unique to nanotechnology: the dependency for its development on interdisciplinary science and engineering; potential new risks; the human-machine-nature interface; specific ethical issues concerning artefacts which mix synthetic and living elements.

Social Science Issues That Are Unique to Nanotechnology

The illustrative items under the first four issues are familiar topics in the social sciences. Those under category five may require some explanation. First, nanotechnology’s inherent interdisciplinary nature, coupled with the uncertainty about its final destiny and the multifaceted linkages with other developments adds bite to its study. If nanotechnology both depends on and provides a means for the enhanced integration between the disciplines of sciences and engineering, the social and economic processes through which this is done will be fertile ground for social scientific investigation and theorising, for example on group processes, perspective taking and virtual working. The merit in this does not, of course, depend on the integration being totally successful, and the research itself could be vitally important to its development (as in the socio-technical approach). Moreover, how nanotechnology combines with developments in other domains, some of which may be unknown now, will involve social and economic processes which again will be ripe for study. 

Debate Regarding the Emergence of the Human-Machine Interface

Second, the human-machine-nature interface; it is likely that the machine will become even more of an extension of ourselves. There is the idea of a new, non-physical space which humans can in some sense inhabit and interact with: expressed by the term ‘virtual reality’. This may be as mundane or primitive as the imagined environment of a video game. More subtle are the ideas of a space of information.

How the Human-Machine Interface Might Affect Human Behaviour

A major driver for the design of the interface between human and machine is the aim of making the machine as much like an extension of the human body as possible, with a seamless and intuitive relationship between intention and realisation. Technical developments, including the formation of images directly on the retina, and the direct translation of nerve impulses into computer inputs will in the future make the interaction between human and computer much more immediate. When this kind of sophisticated interface design is combined with instruments that observe and interact on the nanoscale - such as scanning probe microscopes - there is the possibility that human operators of these instruments will increasingly feel themselves to be physically operating in this new space at the nanoscale. There are even speculations that advanced technologies will eventually allow us to ‘upload’ our minds, thus enabling immortality and survival without biological roots.

Implications of Nanotechnology for Social Science Policy

Formulating the issues as we have done reveals just how few, if any, of the issues are likely to be unique to nanotechnology. They may nonetheless yet be the most profound, being concerned with the human-machine-nature interface, changing conceptions of human kind, and fresh ways of thinking. The fact that the issues are predominantly not unique to nanotechnology does not make them any less important or relevant to the social sciences. It may, though, have implications for the way one approaches the decisions about social science investments. If nanotechnology turns out to be very diverse and the implications of its applications are highly context-specific, a strategy of relying on researchers including nanotechnology into their studies as and when it is perceived to be relevant might suffice. However, at the other extreme, if nanotechnology is predicted to be a unique and overwhelmingly powerful force which will affect all aspects of social life, then the social scientist has no choice but to focus on it, and as early as possible.

Some Themes to Be Addressed by Social Scientists Working in Nanotechnology

The implications of our analysis for social science policy are between the two extremes. We can say that: nanotechnology is a sufficiently developed concept to anticipate that it will be important; nanoscience and nanotechnology need to be differentiated; the complexity of the issues surrounding nanoscience and nanotechnology often lie in their linkages with other developments; and the precise applications and significance are uncertain but will be varied. Some will be mundane, few have thus far been realised, and all have context-specific features.

Unique Research Opportunities that Nanotechnology Might Offer Social Scientists

Given nanotechnology’s apparent importance, and that it is evolving at a time when there are other pressures on issues such as ageing, intellectual property and risk management, it provides social scientists with an opportunity to study the effects of technology on these issues. Similarly, it provides them with an opportunity to study issues associated with any emerging technology. Moreover, nanotechnology’s infancy offers social science an opportunity that past technological development did not, probably because of the underdevelopment of the social sciences. The uncertainty surrounding nanotechnology and the lack of current applications should not be reason for postponing social science research.

Social Science Research into Nanotechnology Should be Happening Now

It would be timely for social science funding agencies to invest in this area. It would not be sufficient to wait for proposals from social scientists in ‘non-technology’ areas as and when they are affected by nanotechnology. Waiting for proposals from researchers working with technology issues, for example within the science policy and innovation areas, might be more successful. Nanotechnology’s social implications should be a high priority for those already working in science and innovation, or no doubt will be. 

Social Science Research Projects into Nanotechnology Will Need to Be Flexible

Specific initiatives on nanotechnology would, however, guarantee that the opportunity provided by nanotechnology is not missed and that the research does not become fragmented. The uncertainty, complexity, and diversity of nanotechnology mean that any such initiative should not be a rigidly preconceived closed programme. Flexibility will be needed to stay abreast of developments as they arise. 

Conclusion - Recommendations for Involving Social Scientists in Future Nanotechnology Projects

In our judgement a number of implications for the design of a research strategy flow from this analysis.

•        If the effects of nanotechnology are potentially as wide-ranging, while having context-specific dimensions, it is unlikely that concentrating resources in one centre will provide the best value for money.

•        If nanotechnology’s characteristics and effects are not primarily idiosyncratic, then the existing expertise of researchers and, particularly, centres working on technology and innovation issues, or issues assumed to be affected by it (e.g. ageing and risk), should be capitalised upon.

•        If nanotechnology will develop in diverse ways in association with complex developments elsewhere, then social scientists will have to work with scientists and technologists, academic and industrial.They will have to understand and be aware of developments, and at best be equal partners in the shaping of future technology and its applications.

•        If different nanotechnologies have different development trajectories, a comparative study of these (as well as with other technologies, both historically and contemporary) would be fruitful.

•        If governance and regulatory regimes vary between countries (with some perhaps designing elements specifically for nanotechnology) international comparisons can be made of how existing regulations impact on the development of nanotechnology and any regulations specific to nanotechnology emerge and operate.

•        If a core aspect of the nano-project turns out to be new issues in the relationship between human beings and nature, with possible implications for a growing closeness between the natural and social sciences, then better working relationships between scientists and social scientists will be vital.

Not all research projects need involve scientists and any need may diminish over time. But maximum benefits from any investments in social science are likely to be reaped with teams of representatives from disciplines across the whole spectrum of the social and natural sciences, pure and applied.   

Primary author: Professor Stephen Wood, Professor Richard Jones and Alison Geldart.

Source: ESRC The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology report, July 2003.

For more information on this source please visit Economic and Social Research Council.

 

Date Added: Jul 5, 2005 | Updated: Jun 11, 2013
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