Dwarfing the Social? Nanotechnology Lessons from the Biotechnology Front
Einseidel, Edna F.
Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society
Vol. 24, Num. 1
Like biotechnology, nanotechnology is a strategic technologies, with disruptive potential. Governments in Japan, England and America are investing to take advantage of its potential in the materials, energy and health sectors. Biotechnology offers several lessons -- not merely cautionary tales -- but lessons that could contribute to more successful embedding and integration processes for nanotechnology. Key questions parallelling and emerging from the biotechnology experience are as follows: "what impacts nanoparticles might have in mammalian systems when they are inhaled, ingested, or injected, or even when skin is exposed to these particles. What are the risks involved when these particles enter and accumulate in the food chain? In the case of future applications such as targeted drug delivery for cancer patients, the removal or disposal of a nanotech delivery vehicle may negate or diminish benefits substantially by triggering other unintended or dangerous effects such as blood clotting....In addition to assessing this broader range of risks, a strategy for mapping these risks needs to be in place." Pathways for licensing, patenting and certification can be developed. In the case of patenting, those benefits that are funded by the public ought to be "open-source" intellectual property. Moreover, the public needs to know, not the details of nanotechnology, but how it is to be applied, who will benefit, what the risks may be, and who is to be held accountable for those risks. Einseidel and Goldenberg say "[i]ssues of legitimacy, accountability, and trust have been at the heart of biotechnology controversies. Legitimacy includes such questions as whose voices are heard at the technology table. In the case of some biotechnology applications such as xenotransplanta-tion, some scientists have themselves suggested a mor-atorium until publics could at least be consulted (Bach et al., 1998), and some regional or national governments have done exactly this (Council of Europe, 1999; Einsiedel, 2002)." The technological frame must include the public and allow for reflexive and critical knowledge and response. This approach broadens the range of social considerations relevant to the sustainable development of nanotechnology and emphasizes the need for developing social tools for nanotechnology innovation while the technology is in its early stages of design.