Nanotech Database

Article Title:
Lessons learned from the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications Program (ELSI): Planning Societal implications research for the National Nanotechnology Program.

Fisher, Erik

Journal Information:
Technology in Society
Vol. 27, Num. 3


Nanotechnology's harms and benefits create a policy challenge. How can an ethical and social research program hope to successfully identify social concerns and integrate these concerns into ongoing nanotechnology development? Fisher's work focuses on the work of the American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center (ANPC), which was created by the National Nanotechnology Program (NNP), which was, in its turn, established by the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act (NRDA). Fisher looks back to problems with Human Genome Project and the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications Program (ELSI). The ELSI evaluation committee concluded that ELSI "lacked capacity for efficient policy development and formation." (323) and was largely impotent. Applying these lessons to nanotechnology, Fisher argues that if ANPC research is intended to influence policy outcomes, then it "should be assessed not just for its quality, but also for its capacity to effect outcomes, which in this case means the course of nanotechnology research and development (R&D) and, ultimately, the nature of the technology that the NNP helps deploy." (325) Furthermore, the kind of societal concern research that the ANPC selects and appraises should be able to be "integrated into technical R&D." (326) Surveying other federal models for policy-formation and research, Fisher suggests that a "combination of the OTA [Office of Technology Assessment] research quality, with its expertise and representation, and IRB [Institutional Review Board] procedure, with its monitoring and approval authority, could be a logical start in moving social concerns research beyond assessment and towards integration." (327) He concludes with the barest wisp of hope: "Although the prospects for the ANPC to function as an effective research and policy body are perhaps slim, they are not completely improbable. In taking into account the purported shortcomings of the ELSI program and in recognizing the unique opportunity latent in the NRDA’s ‘integration policy’, determining the shape of technology during development could be a much more broadly informed process than it is now, suggesting that nanotechnology could be both socially acceptable and socially responsible." (327-328)