NSF awards new grants to study social implications of nanotechnology

August 25, 2003

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced two new grants, well over $1 million apiece, that greatly expand its on-going commitment to study the societal implications of nanotechnology: the emerging discipline that seeks to control and manipulate matter on a molecular scale. The grants will be by far the largest awards the foundation has devoted to societal implications exclusively.

Nanotech has often been hailed as a "transformative" technology--one that could change the way we live and work as profoundly as did the microchip or the automobile. That's why the NSF and 16 other federal agencies are supporting a nearly $1 billion-a-year National Nanotechnology Initiative, in an effort to speed the development along.

"But like any powerful new technology," says NSF Director Rita Colwell, "nanotech also has the potential for unintended consequences--which is precisely why we can't allow the societal implications to be an afterthought. The program has to build in a concern for those implications from the start."

Indeed, says Davis Baird, a philosopher at the University of South Carolina and principal investigator on one of the two new grants, technologies that don't do that have a way of coming to grief later on. Witness the widespread opposition to nuclear energy, and more recently, to genetically modified organisms. "So how can we go down a better path with nanotechnology?" Baird asks.

The grant to South Carolina will allow Baird and his colleagues to tackle that question by setting up an ongoing dialog among as many points of view as possible. Just as researchers need to consider societal implications from the start, Baird emphasizes, "ethicists and other scholars need to understand what's possible in the lab. " Most important, he says, "students who are trained now in the right interdisciplinary setting--one where technical experts can work with people from fields such as law, journalism, medicine, the humanities, social science, or even science fiction and art--will become a cadre of scientists, engineers and scholars who are used to thinking about the societal and technical problems side-by-side.

Meanwhile, the second grant will go to the University of California, Los Angeles, where sociologist Lynne Zucker and her colleagues will study how newly acquired knowledge about nanotechnology makes its way from the laboratory to the marketplace. This is not something that happens automatically, says Zucker, and many startup companies fail because it's not done well. "As new discoveries are made," she explains, "it's very hard for companies to use what's been learned unless they have access to the scientists' tacit knowledge--the stuff that you can't write down in a textbook because you aren't even sure of the concepts yet, and don't have agreed-upon labels for things."

Thus, says Zucker, one of the major products of the UCLA study will be an extensive database on small startup firms in the nanotechnology arena, and what factors influence how well ideas succeed in the marketplace. "It will be a resource for scientists, journalists, policymakers--everyone," she says. "It will help us understand how the knowledge is transmitted, what facilitates that transfer, what blocks it, and what works well."
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