Colloquium: Early Engagement, Better Development?

In the beginning of 21 Century, Nanotechnology was heralded as another industrial revolution. Governments and industries around the world showed great interest to this booming techno-science field. However, due to possible toxicity of nanoparticles, beautiful bubbles around “Nano” gradually burst. To avoid a backlash like GMO, a new trend of integrating social and ethical research early into the development of Nanotechnology emerges on the policy level. This background determines the complexity of ethical discussion on Nanotechnology. Rather than purely theoretical exploration, “Nano-ethics” takes on a new look in ethics of technology: ethics in action. Then, will current early ethical engagement guarantee a better development of Nanotechnology?

This presentation will first discuss several foundational questions relevant to “Nano-ethics”, such as:
(1) are there ethical issues related to nanotechnology?
(2) does nanotechnology raise unique ethical issues?
(3) should nanoethics be recognized as a distinctive subfield of applied ethics?
(4) are nanotechnology-related ethical issues engendered by intrinsic features

Unsatisfactorily, as Arianna Ferrari and Alfred Nordmann have pointed out, the currently available nano-ethical narratives take the appearance of a classic morality play. Nanoethics acts as a lingua franca that attunes stakeholders to one another. It accompanies scientific and technological developments, and takes place entirely in a conversational mode as concerns are expressed in open-ended ways, but no decisions need to be taken, no judgements need to be made, no conclusions need to be reached.

To improve the status quo, the clarification and distribution of ethical responsibilities among different stakeholders of Nanotechnology remains an urgent challenge. Specifically, I will introduce an ongoing case study in the Chemical Engineering Department of TUDelft as an example. As one of the pioneers in the university based science community, Chemical Engineering department initiated a “TNW Nanosafety Guideline”. It aims to implement precautionary principle and protect workplace safety. This meritorious practice is indeed a precious first step for nano-science community to take on its ethical responsibility. However, it follows the classical mindset of “two cultures”. Social and ethical aspect was basically ignored, and safety issues are reduced to technical measures. The EU Code of Conduct for Responsible Nanoscience and Nanotechnology was helpless in the eyes of lab-researchers.