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ESRCNanotechnologyReportSummary

ESRCNanotechnologyReportSummary

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03/18/2014

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NANOTECHNOLOGY:
FROM THE SCIENCE TO THE SOCIAL
The social, ethical and economic aspects of the debate
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Professor Stephen Wood
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Professor Richard Jones
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Alison Geldart
NANOTECHNOLOGY: from the Science to the Social
NANOTECHNOLOGY:
FROM THE SCIENCE TO THE SOCIAL
THE SOCIAL, ETHICAL AND ECONOMIC ASPECTS OF THE DEBATE

Nanotechnology is applied science and engineering on the scale of atoms and molecules.
Its realm is the manipulation and use of materials and devices which exhibit novel properties at
this nano level.

Before either the technology or notions of its social effects had even begun to ferment, the
debate on its potential impacts was in danger of becoming polarised between two radical views.
For many, nanotechnology has the potential to represent a radical discontinuity from existing
science and technology. On the one hand, a positive utopian scenario predicted material
abundance and an end to human suffering, while the counter-position of a negative dystopian
perspective foresaw destruction and a threat to existence.

Since its emergence, the debate on the social challenges of nanotechnology has matured in some
respects, with this polarisation of the radical utopians and dystopians becoming less dominant.
Positions are more nuanced; more actors have entered the arena, and there is a general
consensus that nanotechnology is a diverse technology still very much in its infancy with broad
positive potential. Its very nascency makes it an excellent subject for social science investigation.
However, it could be argued that the debate is not much further forward; currently, analysis of
nanotechnology\u2019s potential effect on society tends to focus narrowly on the possible toxicity of
nanoparticles to human and environmental health, detracting attention from discussions of
nanotechnology\u2019s wider impacts.There is also an emphasis on public engagement with
technological development which, while important, seems to dominate social science activity.

THE NANOTECHNOLOGY
HIGHLIGHTING THE MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS

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ENCOMPASS MANY DIFFERENT TECHNOLOGIES
THE APPLICATION OF NANOSCIENCE
POWERFUL TECHNOLOGY
ROBOTIC TECHNOLOGY
NANOTECHNOLOGY
DEBATE
PRESENTING ANOVERVIEW
HIGHLIGHTING THE MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS

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These are the two main areas dominating discussions on nanotechnology\u2019s impacts which our analysis has uncovered,
leading to a rather unbalanced discourse.Toxicity of nanoparticles is at its heart a science issue rather than a social one,
but social science questions related to regulation and risk perception are not far from the surface. As with other, more
minor, themes in the debate, the matter of public shaping of science and technology is not specific to nanotechnology.
In our judgement this leaves many issues that are not being addressed.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF NANOTECHNOLOGY

Nanotechnology has some unique features as a case study for the social science of science, as it appears to have arisen not just as a natural development from existing disciplines, but at least partly as a result of external factors. This poses a number of interesting questions:

1Is nanotechnology developing into a distinct field \u2013 that is, are there social and institutional pressures causing scientists
in well-established disciplines such as chemistry and physics to assume a new disciplinary identity?
2Is the nucleation of the field of nanotechnology, if this indeed is taking place, an integral part of the transformation of

science from Mode 1-type, traditional discipline-based research, to Mode 2-type, in that knowledge is generated in a fundamentally interdisciplinary fashion? Is nanotechnology being developed as a field precisely by those scientists who embrace Mode 2 values?

3Are the grand visions associated with radical views of nanotechnology influential in shaping the development of science
and technology, despite the rejection by many scientists of the assumptions on which they are based?

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