The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently renewed two important cooperative agreements totaling more than $12.5 million over five years. These awards leverage previous investments for studying the ethical, legal, economic and policy implications of the relatively new, nature-altering science called nanotechnology.
The Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University received $6,507,000 over a five year renewal, while the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at University of California, Santa Barbara received $6,076,000 for the same time period.
Nanotechnology allows researchers and manufacturers to controll matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Societal benefits of using the science to create new materials, devices for medicine, electronics and energy production could be transformative. But creating such things through molecular manipulation raises health and safety risks as well as ethical and legal questions.
As part of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which identifies “responsible development” as one of four strategic goals for nanotechnology research, NSF is committed to supporting research that investigates the societal aspects of this promising but uncertain technology. “These centers play a pivotal role in understanding and anticipating the potential societal impacts of nanotechnology and engaging multiple stakeholders in discussions about the future of emerging technologies,” said Myron Gutmann, NSF assistant director, who leads the Directorate for Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences. “They are truly interdisciplinary centers, spanning the social, natural and engineering sciences.”
NSF-supported research at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU (CNS-ASU) will use “real-time technology assessment (RTTA),” a social science tool that relies on understanding the social, moral, political and economic dynamics of nanotechnologies, to develop a strategic vision for their “anticipatory governance.”
“The biggest question for the center,” said David Guston, director of CNS-ASU and political science professor, “is how far anticipatory governance can take us, not only in guiding societal research but in assuring the responsible development of nanotechnologies.”
The center’s research, involving collaborations among ASU, Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Wisconsin, is conducted in clusters that logically organize research findings. RTTA clusters include: research and innovation systems assessment; public opinion and values; anticipation and deliberation; and reflexivity and integration. A second set of clusters for thematic research include equity, equality and responsibility and, beginning with the renewal, urban design, materials, and the built environment or “nano and the city.”
“It is particularly important,” Guston said, “to locate nanotechnologies in the city because cities are home to most of humanity and are also focal points of complex systems for energy, water, transportation, etc., that will be sites for nanotechnological innovation.” Assessing how nanotechnologies may or may not contribute to the sustainability of these systems in an urban context is the primary goal of this new program. Under the renewal, the center will also pursue formal and informal educational opportunities and build new capacities among a broad array of stakeholders and the public.
ASU’s sister center at UC Santa Barbara will pull together interdisciplinary research to produce new knowledge about the challenges to successful development of nanotechnologies in North America, Europe, Asia and other regions.
“The nano enterprise is a rapidly expanding,” said center director Barbara Herr Harthorn, an anthropologist and associate professor of feminist studies at UC Santa Barbara. “It is a highly distributed global phenomenon with the potential for broad social and economic implications.”
Dubbed CNS-UCSB, the center has an evolving international research infrastructure used to create a community of diverse participants who share their knowledge for the simultaneous benefit of both society and technology. Under the award renewal, CNS-UCSB will use this infrastructure to conduct collaborative research on both approaches to achieve and barriers that prevent socially and environmentally sustainable and socially equitable nanotechnologies.
The center also will provide interdisciplinary educational opportunities for a new generation of social science, humanities and nanoscience professionals via graduate fellowships and research assistantships, along with undergraduate summer research internships for regional community college students and UCSB undergrads.
“The CNS at UCSB has developed novel educational programs that provide scientists-in-training hands-on experience,” said Harthorn. “Our goal is to generate knowledge useful for NSF, the National Nanotechnology Initiative, policymakers, and the public.”
She said the challenge at CNS-UCSB is to systematically study, both in its contemporary and historical contexts, the dynamic system of technological production associated with nanotechnology, while at the same time probing aspects that are vital to fulfilling its promises of socially responsible development.
The awards are scheduled to expire in August 2015.