A SOCIOLOGICAL INSIGHT OF NANOTECHNOLOGY CONCEPTIONS
The Journal of Philosophy Science & Law. University of Miami, US.
1 July, 2006.
This report, which comprises the conceptions of diverse actors involved in nanotechnology issues, is a product of the Nano-Conceptions survey carried out on April 2006.
It aims to provide reliable and first-hand data relating to conceptions held by certain key ‘stakeholders' concerning the development process of nanotechnology and its potential social and ethical gaps and implications. Hence, in order to ‘map’ the sociological context in which nanotechnology development is embedded, the Report was envisaged as a ‘constructed dialogue’ on the diversity and similarities of points of views and beliefs of the contributors.
As an analytical tool, it does not seek to embrace a ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ nanotechnology position per se. Believing that such types of contributions are necessary and useful for the enrichment of the language, knowledge and understanding within a group of actors that feel a kinship with each other (to some degree or another) but which are not necessarily helpful for establishing a dialogue between the diverse communities of actors, the Report presents the conceptions ‘as they are’, leaving the reader to form her/his own interpretations and opinions.
The main issues assessed by the Report are: the development pace of nanoscience and nanotechnology; the constraints, gaps, quality and certainty of nanoscientific and nanotechnology knowledge; the concerns relating to potential and plausible social, ethical and environmental impacts; the aspects of military defense and security nanotechnology applications; the relationship between nanotechnology and the solution of practical problems in underdeveloped countries; and the communication proposals among actors and communities for policymaking.
Finally the Report comes with a draft proposal titled: A Dialogue Methodology for Policy of Nanotechnology Implications, which could be extended to Converging Technologies Implications, and other related areas.
This report is expected to contribute to a wider public understanding of nanosciences and nanotechnologies implications while at the same time proposing some steps to take in order to move the dialogue and debate forward.
The report is a product of a survey among diverse actors involved in nanotechnology issues. Most of them are what we in general tend subjectively to categorize as experts.
The range of ‘expertise’ has included politicians, scientists, businessmen, and journalists. The general public has been considered but as a ‘barometer’ of the social awareness of nanotechnology implications.
For methodological and practical purposes, and owing to funding limitations, the Nano-Conceptions survey was implemented via the Internet through email contact of around 1,500 experts mostly from Europe, the United States and Japan. A low percentage replied to the survey (89) and even fewer participated (51). Despite this, it can be said that the quality of the responses from the participants makes the surveys’ sample a good one but, certainly, in any case a sufficient one.
Yet, considering the limited spectrum of the survey, this first approach seems to be a very useful instrument for an introductory and general appraisal of the sociological nature of the nano communities and the diverse groups that can be classified as being in a dialogue methodology for policymaking. These, in broad terms, are:
- Natural Sciences Community
- Social Sciences Community
- Government Community
- Private Sector Community
- And, Society
Every nano-community (as seen in this report) has an extensive number of ‘clusters’, fields or disciplines (e.g. Chemistry, Physics; Sociology, Philosophy, Economics; NGOs, Mass media, etc) that are successively shaped by several ‘sub-clusters’, schools of thought or particular groups that ‘feel’ a kinship with each other. Such sub-clusters as representatives of particular conceptions and interests might differ considerably with each other and may or may not be carriers, in some degree or another, of hype.
For example, in the case of nanotechnology’s interpretation, on the one hand, there is, in broad terms, the mainstream nanotechnology cluster (or the materials science type of nanotechnology); and, on the other hand, there is the molecular manufacturing nanotechnology school of thought (Drexler’s type). The last one is often identified as a pseudoscience or science fiction even though its unfeasibility has not yet been scientifically demonstrated (it is well known that quite a number of scientists –such as Smalley - consider that there are severe technical and maybe physical restrictions).
It is important to clarify that in order to avoid any misunderstandings, the term of ‘stakeholders’ is not used in the report (unless it is in quotes). This is because, strictly speaking, such a conceptualization might limit the number of actors to be included since a ‘stakeholder’ must have a ‘stake’-in, and therefore a ‘legitimate’ interest. Hence, it is a connotation that from a sociological and ethical perspective, leads us to formulate questions such as: Who is a ‘legitimate actor‘, and who is not, and to what degree (if any)? What are the parameters that define and measure it?
Instead, as described above, the report will refer to ‘communities’ and its ‘clusters’ and ‘sub-clusters’ since they seem to be more suitable for our purpose because they can potentially take into account everyone, including those who do not have a direct stake; those that might be impacted by, and; those that have the right to take a position even though they might not be (directly) affected.
Taking into account this conceptual clarification, and in order to ‘map’ the sociological context in which nanotechnology development is embedded, the report has been conceived as a ‘constructed dialogue’ and hence built-up on the diversity and similarities of the points of views and beliefs of the contributors to the Nano-Conceptions survey.
How the conceptions and particular interests of each sub-cluster and cluster are transforming; how they ‘model’ the advancement and the characteristics of nanoscience and nanotechnology in one or another direction; and what the implications are of this (e.g. the institutionalization of conceptions and interests, etc), are aspects beyond the scope of this Report even though it is evident that these are key issues which need to be studied using a profound and detailed sociopolitical insight of nanotechnology development and its implications.
Instead, the explanatory purpose is quite limited. The idea is to offer, in one exercise, some of the main conceptions that are circulating among the ‘experts’ and that mainly dominate the ‘nano debate’. It is evident that the conceptions presented “are very general first comments” and, as pointed out by Dr. Maj M. Andersen of the RisØ National Laboratory (Denmark), “…in all, there is not much new coming out.”
The Report should thus be seen as an exercise to grasp the range and variety of general nano-conceptions as such and as a way of recognizing the process in which these are usually being disseminated from the ‘experts’ arena and into the public sphere in general.
The main issues assessed are:
- Stages of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Development
- Constraints, Gaps, Quality and Certainty of Nanoscientific and Nanotechnology Knowledge
- Concerns relating to Potential and Plausible Environmental, Ethical and Societal Impacts
- Aspects of Military Defense and Security Nanotechnology Applications
- Nanotechnology, Practical Problems and ‘Underdeveloped’ Countries
- Communication Proposals Among Actors and Communities for Policy Making
Therefore, the Report can be seen as a raw material source for a wider discussion and evaluation of the aspects and dimensions of the development of nanotechnology just mentioned –and the like; and not as an evaluation per se.
However, the discussion and evaluation have to be considered as a relevant ‘must’ not only because the lack of dialogue is costly, but also because in the very near future we will have to face, not only the (nano)technological ‘context of justification’, and the ‘context of application’, but the ‘context of implications’ as well.
An evaluation effort based on the establishment of a real, serious and active dialogue seems to be an unavoidable necessity since the public acceptance of novel technology in general is no longer a trivial thing; rather it is a prerequisite for the successful implementation of technology. In this regard, the main worries are related to the kind of nanotechnology that society needs; and to questions concerning by whom and by which instruments these areas are being developed and regulated. This means that future consequences of nanotechnology (and indeed of converging technologies) are increasingly becoming relevant. Key issues include the ‘distribution of risk’, as well as economical and political justice and power affairs within international, regional and national spheres.
A major reflection should then be made because, “…scientific and technological innovation has the fundamental characteristic of being unpredictable in the sense that the results are in principle unknown until they are found.”
If nanotechnology is considered to be a powerfully transformative technology, then “…it is critical to understand where this technology is coming from and where it is going”. Analytical clarity is crucial in order to advise policy makers properly. Presently there is widespread confusion between the reality of nanotechnologies (in the short term), their potential (in the medium and long term) and the ‘stuff’ of science fiction, and not only on the part of the general public. Similarly, there seems to be some naïve suppositions ‘out there’ regarding certain social and ethical aspects of nanotechnology, specially a naïve assumption of a context of power-relations emptiness and therefore of class conflicts.
Hence, this report on a Sociological Insight of Nanotechnology Conceptions expects to contribute with the current debate while clarifying some delusions and at the same time by taking the dialogue forward by proposing ‘A Dialogue Methodology for Policy of Nanotechnology Implications.
Finally, it is important to state that this report does not intend to take a ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ nanotechnology position per se. Believing that such types of contributions are necessary and useful for the enrichment of the language, knowledge and understanding within a cluster or in similar clusters, as well as for sociopolitical activism, yet that they are not necessarily helpful for establishing a dialogue between the diverse communities and actors, the report presents the conceptions ‘as they are’, letting the reader to form his/her own interpretations and opinions.
However, this does not mean that the way this text has been configured is completely free of the author’s values and conceptions.
Governments of the US, EU and Japan –as the leaders of S&T development- should implement a pilot project of at least three independent ELSA groups for reviewing, for example, the case of converging technologies. These must include ‘local’ and foreign ELSA specialists in order to avoid ethnocentric perspectives. Their results should be published and widely discussed for a possible broader implementation.
A parallel exercise must be done in the cases concerning defense, military and security nanotechnologies applications with the purpose of defining and creating a general international proactive agreement on regulation/prohibition of such applications in a period no longer than five years.
Other countries should implement as well this type of mechanisms, but in relation to their own reality and particularly in the S&T areas in which there is a higher public concern.