Nanotechnology: Some questions for social scientists

In 2003 I was one of the coauthors of a report – ‘The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology’ (PDF) – commissioned by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council – this is the body which distributes government research funding to social scientists. Last year the ESRC commissioned me and my coauthors, Stephen Wood and Alison Geldart, to write a follow-up report summarising the way the debate about nanotechnology had evolved over the intervening years. The follow up report is now available from the ESRC web-site – Nanotechnology: from the science to the social (2 MB PDF) – and for those with a shorter attention span a short briefing (765 kB PDF) is also available.

One of our aims was to identify some questions that we thought were worthy of further study by social scientists. Here are some of the issues we thought were worth some more study:

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:
1) Is nanotechnology developing into a distinct field – 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?
2) Is 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 to Mode 2-type and is nanotechnology being developed as a field precisely by those scientists who embrace Mode 2 values?
3) Are 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?

Nanotechnology, industry and the economy

Nanotechnology poses important questions in relation to technological innovation and its relationship to wealth creation. Governments and agencies worldwide are providing substantial financial support for nanotechnology on the basis of tacit or explicit assumptions that this support will yield substantial economic dividend. These assumptions need critical examination; some questions that arise include the following:
1) Is there, or will there ever be, a nanotechnology industry?
2) Will there be “nanotech” clusters comparable to “biotech” and information technology clusters?
3) Will these be geographical clusters, or could there be virtual clusters?
4) Will there be clusters associated with discrete sub-areas of nanotechnology, such as (for example) bionanotechnology for diagnostics?
5) As governments look to nanotechnology as a driver of innovation and economic growth, tacit or explicit models of the innovation process are being invoked to help frame policy. Are these models of innovation applicable to nanotechnology (or indeed any other new technology)?

Nanotechnology and internationalisation

Government support for Nanotechnology has included non-western countries and the EU, making it a unique and important case study in the further internationalisation of science and innovation. Questions that arise from this include:
1) What is the scope for government policy to influence innovations in the nanotechnology area, both between and within organisations, in an increasingly global economy?
2) Is there an emerging international division of labour in the development of nanotechnology?
3) Can nanotechnology make significant contributions to the development of less-developed countries? Contrasts between China and India, which are receiving most attention, with countries where nanotechnology has been given a significant role in plans but are receiving less attention, like Brazil, may be instructive.
4) Is there any truth in the caricature of the ‘Wild East’, i.e. a place without ethical or intellectual property-bound constraints unfairly competing with western countries?
5) As nanotechnology may be the first science in modern times in which substantial and original developments take place in non-western cultures, can it offer any insights about cultural relativism in science?

Technology development and society

The portrayal of nanotechnology in popular culture is strongly influenced by social movements outside the scientific mainstream. The significance of this unusual feature should be examined:
1) Some futurists argue that nanotechnology itself is accelerating the rate of technological change and hence social change – does this stand up to scrutiny?
2) How does nanotechnology fit into broader social movements about technology development, and do such movements depend on grand visions (positive or negative)?
3) Is there any significance to those movements, such as transhumanism, which are associated with the promotion of more futuristic visions of nanotechnology? What role do these movements have in shaping broader societal debates, such as the nascent debate about human enhancement?

Public engagement

The widespread consensus about the desirability of public engagement in connection with nanotechnology should receive some critical scrutiny:
1) The public engagement activities and the methods used could be evaluated, including a cross-country comparison of the various experiments in it and the role of the dissemination of scientific knowledge within this process.
2) While accepting the force of the critique of the deficit model of public understanding, one needs to understand the origins of the public’s understanding of nanotechnology, and particularly the relative influence of the various interest groups, whose visions of nanotechnology may be very different, as well as popular media, serious journalism, science fiction, and computer games.

3 thoughts on “Nanotechnology: Some questions for social scientists”

  1. I have been off the Highway of Light for a bit. Building network and community with the crew. As always you have left me crew’s mouse hand tired with the searching you leave to do, and the the learning that comes later.
    For Devin. Not to cut into the excellent work and diligence that Richard has done, a quick perusal of my reference site on the sidebar listing for Nanotechnology and lower down on the blogroll you will find a fair amount of material, with much more to come.
    Also of note, Mathematica, our core program has included a ‘Nano’ component in the latest release. It will be available for us on a First In – First Out basis when the network goes active in August.

    Best wishes as always to Richard


    Martin G. Smith

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