Size Matters: Nanoethics

Nanoethics is a thing. A new thing, and a small (heh) thing, but a thing nonetheless. So sometimes when I tell people I work on philosophical issues in nanoscience, they assume I mean nanoethics. I don’t. But what I do has some bearing on what nanoethics researchers write about, and I think it would be fun to export what I do to nanoethics someday.

If that day were today, I would probably write a paper that began by reviewing what I have read in nanoethics. What I have read is a lot of very real, very interesting concern about public health and safety and a lot of analogies to times in the past when scientists failed to consider or actively disregarded the health and safety of some community as they were doing research and how bad that was. Cf. nuclear bomb testing, Tuskeegee, radium spas and watch dials, genetically modified foods.

For a lot of reason-y reasons, people who write about nanoethics latch onto the analogy with genetically modified foods. The National Nanotechnology Initiative, a sort of nano-nanny group (okay, nano-nanny isn’t actually the appropriate term, but man is it fun to say. NNI is more of a public-outreach/mediator group) interested in the promotion of nanotechnology, formed in part in response to the public-health outcry about GMOs. Ronald Sandler and William Kay explain in their article, using the GMO analogy, that NNI needs to do more to both monitor public health and safety and communicate about health and safety to the public. They actually focus on differences between GMOs and nanotech, arguing that nano, as a non-food-based and non-biological technology, will be less culturally invasive, less omnipresent, and less potentially religiously offensive than GMOs—and that the public needs better access to information about these differences, so that nano can be seen as a social good.

Sandler and Kay are right. Nano is already getting a bad rap for appearing in cosmetics and food production (despite Sandler and Kay’s prediction that nano would stay out of food), and I still remember one of the first radio stories I ever heard about nano trying to answer the question of whether carbon nanotubes will give you asbestos-like lung diseases.

Right now, these individual public-health scare cases are just that—individual cases. The nanomaterials in Mary Kay’s mineral makeup line are not carbon nanotubes, nor are they the clay nanocomposites that some food and beverage manufacturers have considered mixing into their plastics. But the stories all say there is something about the nanoparticles being small that is bad for you, and there is an intuitive sense that the risk of damage is related to the fact that the materials are often smaller than our red blood cells.

The current focus of nanoethics is on health and safety, communication, industry regulation, and the like. These are important issues and should play central roles in scientific ethics conversations, clearly. But they are not concerns that are specific to nano—health and safety, communication and regulation are all important for any new technology. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that what makes nano unique as a technology is the very same smallness that seems so potentially threatening in each of the nano-safety scare cases. Unlike GMOs and radiation, which are scary because of a particular mechanism of human-body degradation that we associate with exposure, nano is not a science with a dominant mechanism. It is a science with a dominant scale. And where that scale can be seen as threatening to public or individual health in the scare-articles linked above, that scale also has immense therapeutic potential as a cancer-killer, drug-deliverer, and preventative-care imaging technology.

The take-away here is that understanding and communicating how size matters to the health and safety of nanotechnology, and making informed decisions on the basis of that understanding, is going to be what distinguishes conversations in nanoethics from conversations in other areas of scientific ethics. These conversations haven’t happened yet. But if you’ve been following this blog, you know that what I’m trying to do with my life these days is figure out how to tell the right stories to explain how size matters in nanomaterials.

So maybe I am doing nanoethics after all.

(On the other hand, if you want to read an insightful criticism of nanoethics as a discipline, go here.)


About burstenj

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
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