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Posted: Apr 20, 2006
Journal considers nanotech from social science perspective
(Nanowerk News) Nanotechnology news generally is made by scientists and engineers tinkering with miniscule bits of matter in novel ways. But a new issue of a niche anthropology journal urges social scientists and society to jump into the nano-fray.
Michigan State University anthropologist John Stone served as guest co-editor for the spring issue of Practicing Anthropology, which takes a cover-to-cover look at social issues associated with nanotech’s emergence. The special issue – focused exclusively on nanotechnology in society – is a first-of-its kind effort among North American social science journals.
"National interest in nanotech crosses private, government, academic and nonprofit sectors," said Stone, a researcher at MSU’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Standards. "This special issue of the journal presents multidisciplinary social science applications and contributions in each of these domains"
Amy Wolfe, who leads a team of economists and social scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, co-edited the journal with Stone. Contributing authors cut across a range of institutions, including Intel Corp., the Houston Advanced Research Center, the Chemical Heritage Foundation and several major research universities. The articles address topics such as public definitions of nanotechnology, risk perception and communication, policy and regulation, and outreach and public engagement.
Nanotech is the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers; a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. By way of comparison, a typical human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers in diameter.
Some scientists and technologists suggest that nanotech, with its potential to produce inventions ranging from self-organizing machines to smart food and drugs, may eventually prove a socially transformative technology. Others say it’s merely a new hype-laden word to describe something that in fact has been going on in research labs for more than a half century.
Traditionally, social scientists and the public have entered into such discussions only after the technology development is well under way – a situation that needs fixing, the editors say, especially given nanotech’s potential.
"One hears in the rhetoric surrounding nanotechnology ubiquitous references to ‘playing God’ and the accordant promise of things both great and grave that accompanies such endeavor," Stone and Wolfe write in the journal introduction, adding that "the creative and technical capacity to evoke such transformation bears a similarly heavy burden of responsibility."
This responsibility should at least be shared widely, according to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a federal research program established to coordinate the multiagency efforts in nano-scale science, engineering, and technology. Through the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the National Science Foundation is funding research collaborations that reach beyond the usual science and engineering suspects to reflect to the potential wide-ranging constituencies who might be affected by nanotech.
According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative Web site, nanotech’s "societal dimensions include a diverse range of subjects, such as access to benefits arising from nanotechnology, effects on the labor pool, changes in the way medicine is practiced, the impact of manufacturing locally at the point of need, concerns regarding possible health or environmental effects and privacy concerns arising from distributed nanotechnology-based sensors."
The special issue of Practicing Anthropology was supported largely through an NSF grant to MSU to study the social and ethical dimensions of nanotechnology in the agrifood sector.