Nanotech Database

Article Title:
Does existing law fail to address nanotechnoscience?

Bennett, M.

Journal Information:
Technology and Society Magazine, IEEE
Vol. 23, Num. 4


Nanoscience, with its potential to affect many industries, is a broad and dense field. "Nanocritics" are concerned that ethical issues will be ignored, and visions of future nano-enhanced societies promulgated by producers of products and services will not be subjected to broader societal critique. Currently lacking, they say, is an ethical and legal structure able to guide research in and commercialization of nanotechnology. By contrast, Bennett believes such a structure exists in the United States, but no such structure can entirely guide a new technology.

One version of the structure, promoted by K. Eric Drexler's Foresight Institute, is voluntary compliance by scientists to science(not government)-generated ethics, a Baconian version of state-sponsored science which Bennett believes largely exists now. A second approach favors advance government regulation to avoid a backlash of public fear. A third approach favors avoidance of developing nanotechnology until its scope and impact are more fully understood, with some products and processes clearly eschewed. There are no direct laws (in 2004) governing nanotechnology and citizen panels may have limited effectiveness in guiding research.

However, Bennet says, a "more general perusal of the legal terrain  particularly post-1980  finds it shot through with implicit, latent, and embedded ethics bearing directly on novel technologies as a class, and therefore affecting NTS." (30) He lists a series of Acts and Laws which should apply to nanotechnology and discusses a recent series of court rulings on technology which also apply. "NTS critics should broaden their perspective," argues Bennet. Laws generally do not affect what gets invented or distributed; and "[a]ny attempt to fully address the regulation of NTS, as well as the more general recurrence of culturally and socially disruptive inventions, must come to grips with the distributed legal affinity described here. To the extent that law functions, in part, as a reservoir of desirable oughts, it would seem logical for a democratic community proactively to develop methods for addressing problematic aspects of technological change, rather than blindly encouraging technology transfer. As an alternative, Bennett suggests that "institutions capable of broadly engaging the emergence of novel technology are a dire social need. In our age perhaps no other phenomena so regularly forces us to reassess our societal goals and cultural commitments. In this sense, emerging technologies can be understood as challenging gifts. We are left to see whether our society is mature enough to manage them."