Letter to the editor of The New Atlantis in response to Adam Keiper’s Nanoethics as a Discipline?
As historians of nanotechnology (incongruous as that sounds), we read with great interest Adam Keiper’s recent article “Nanoethics as a Discipline?” Keiper’s article raises some excellent correctives to sloppy or hasty thinking that has characterized some work thus far on the social, cultural, economic, and ethical dimensions of nanotechnology. We suggest, however, that Keiper comes perilously close to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We by no means speak for all people in this field, but we have been associated, for the past three+ years, with organizations that have been heavily involved in bringing social science and humanities perspectives to the nanotech policy debate. Through our involvement in that debate we have seen that there is both demand for and, increasingly, a supply of, high-quality research on nanotechnology’s complex relationship to our wider culture.
Let’s start by asking what discipline (or “discipline?” as Keiper might put it) is in question here. Keiper begins and ends his article by discussing “nanoethics,” but the bulk of the piece is more concerned with an interdisciplinary farrago of sociologists, historians, anthropologists, political scientists, rhetoricians, philosophers, comp. lit. scholars, economists, management researchers, science and technology studies scholars, etc. This potpourri, as Keiper notes, goes by a number of different names, but we would call it “social studies of nanotechnology” or “nano studies” – that is, a field similar in make-up and intention to mature research areas like “Russian studies” or “American studies.”
We definitely would not limit this field to questions of ethics, on the model (which Keiper upholds) of bioethics. This is not because, as Keiper suggests, practitioners of this field are uninterested in the “deeper questions” of “great social goods.” Rather, we advocate this broad-based, interdisciplinary approach precisely to get at the deeper questions Keiper refers to. His article states that “it is difficult, if not impossible, to have any discussion, let alone serious ethical reflection, if there is not some basic agreement about the facts at issue.” While Keiper suggests that the only facts that matter here are “purely” technical ones revolving around which nanotechnologies are or are not achievable, we suggest that the posing of more penetrating inquiries is impossible if it is uninformed by empirical data contributed by a broad array of social scientists and humanities scholars.
Keiper lists four areas that concern nanoethicists: safety; social justice; dramatic social change; and transhumanism. We have no quibble with research in these four areas, and we wholeheartedly agree with Keiper that such research needs to be more mindful of what mainstream scientists and engineers agree is technically achievable. However, we also believe there are several other necessary areas of scholarly inquiry that Keiper neglects.
Consider this example: A great deal of the National Nanotechnology Initiative’s (NNI) efforts are currently directed to reshaping the nature of the American science education system from kindergarten to Ph.D. One explicit goal of the NNI has been to establish institutions (such as university-based Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers) that will undo the quilt of disciplines present in most American universities and replace it with an almost completely unified, interdisciplinary mass. This means not just breaking down the barriers holding apart physicists, chemists, electrical engineers, and biologists, but even integrating those fields as fully as possible with sociology, economics, legal studies, etc. At the same time, the NNI clearly aims to integrate universities in novel ways with more and more of the institutions of American society. These include business (through a plethora of Small Business Innovation Research grants and other incentives for professorial start-ups) and the K-12 education system (through public “Nano Days” for schoolchildren, through grade school classes taught by graduate students in various nano disciplines, and by encouraging high school science teachers to work in university nano labs over the summer).
Why should these activities be a concern for nanoethicists? Many of the most rancorous, divisive questions in American life are concerned with the training of future generations. School districts or university administrators across the country must continually deal with ideological tug-of-war that break out over new movements in pedagogy: in language training (phonics, ebonics, and language-of-instruction issues for immigrants’ children); in mathematics (student-centered learning); in history and social studies (how much revisionism is a good thing?); in literature; and in science (creationism and intelligent design).
Nanotechnology – whatever it turns out to be – will clearly both push and be dragged along with these national debates about pedagogy. Here, we think, is a prime example of a “deeper question” that many people value where nanotechnology offers both a distinct and broad case for exploring the ethics involved. We think there may, in fact, be ethical questions at stake if future generations learn that there is no use to distinguishing chemistry from physics from mechanical engineering and that these all are just nanotechnology. We think there are even more urgent and important ethical matters at stake if today’s students are trained to think of schools and universities as completely porous to industry or operating like any other for-profit business.
As individuals we may or may not agree with these changes. As historians, though, we strongly believe we and other nano studies practitioners can contribute empirical findings that should color ethical discussion of these shifts. Do enrollments in science go up as a result of nano-outreach? How does nano’s influence on the academy affect retention of women and minorities in science and engineering? How do graduate students and postdocs participate in the value chain extending from their professors’ labs to various companies? These are questions that need to be asked, and they are questions that historians, sociologists, economists, and other scholars can offer insights on.
Given, then, our commitment to a field of nano studies that is engaged with the “deeper questions,” we take some exception to Keiper’s characterizations of the field. First, we find very odd Keiper’s dismissive comparison (in his second paragraph) of nanoethics and bioethics. Bioethics, he claims, followed in the wake of biomedicine; nanoethics, prematurely, comes into being at the same time as nanotechnology. There are, we think, excellent reasons to be suspicions of comparisons between nano studies and bioethics, but this isn’t one of them. The constituent disciplines and industries of nanotechnology have been around for a very long time, as have many of the ethical issues today associated with nano.
Take, for instance, the microelectronics industry (one of our areas of research). The features of most commercial transistors are or very soon will be small enough that this entire industry will have to be categorized as part of nanotechnology. This is an industry that has been around for well over half a century, has spun off a very large proportion of the sub-fields and tools of academic nanotechnology, and contributes more than any other industry to US gross domestic product. It’s also an industry that pioneered out-sourcing and off-shoring, that was among the first to embrace the new business models of venture capital and the IPO, and is responsible for 29 (!) Superfund sites in Santa Clara county alone. Clearly, then, an industry where societal values and “deeper questions” point in lots of different directions, and where the ethical issues are particularly vexed. And yet, in those fifty years, no cohort of professional ethicists has stepped in to address and examine the material and cultural consequences, wonderful and not-so-great, of this giant industry. It is our urgent hope, then, that we can fold these broader existing issues into the purview of nano studies.
Keiper has a further litany of complaints about nano studies. It is, he says, the kind of field where every NGO and “liberal environmental group” has to pile in to have its say, whether they know anything or not. True, there are a lot of competing voices, some of them quite over-the-top – which can, we agree, be frustrating. On the other hand, we’d far rather that nano studies be the kind of field that keeps asking who the relevant constituencies are, rather than waiting fifty years to discover that our analysis is meaningless because we forgot to include some crucial perspectives.
Similarly, he complains that there is an endless succession of conferences and journals on societal issues in nano. We agree; in fact, one of us (Mody) recently organized just such a conference at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Here, several of the panelists expressed deep frustrations at the proliferation of such events. Yet we note that another panelist (Barbara Karn of the EPA) then asked the audience how many of them had never been to such an event before and felt their questions about nano had yet to be addressed – close to two-thirds (i.e. about 80 people) raised their hands. Too many conferences may just be something everyone involved in nanotechnology may have to endure for a while.
Keiper also protests that social scientists involved in nano use too much jargon, that they will probably just use government funding to test their own theories, and only talk to each other. True, these are real dangers – in any field. We can’t see any difference here between the natural sciences and the social sciences. The number of physicists and chemists using “nano” money just to test their own theories will always be orders of magnitude greater than the number of insular nano social scientists.
And, of course, every field uses jargon – though we are continually amazed by what, exactly, counts as jargon. At the same CHF conference one prominent chemist, in the course of a somewhat technical (one might even say jargon-y) talk, stated that she enjoyed working with social scientists but that they use off-putting terms like “social justice”. Social justice! If that constitutes jargon then it is surely (to borrow Morgan Phillips’ description of the British Labour Party) a term that “owes more to Methodism than to Marx” (and more to Martin Luther King than to Max Weber). We all use technical terms as shorthand. One challenge of nanotechnology will be to develop institutions that encourage us to point out each other’s opaque terminology and keep us from simply retreating to test our pet theories.
Keiper quite rightly, however, notices the self-absorbed, navel-gazing quality of much of today’s nano studies. Indeed. Our special pet peeve is the laboratory ethnography that ends up describing nothing other than the decision to allow the ethnographer to enter the laboratory. And yet, nano studies is trying to do something new and experimental. In any experiment, it pays to focus attention on your methods, to try and get the right process in place. Though Keiper upholds bioethics as a model for nano studies, we feel that bioethics probably could have used a great deal more methods-questioning early in its formation. As the call for papers of a recent conference on the “ethics of bioethics” puts it:
Professional standards guide the conduct of all healthcare professions – except bioethics. All healthcare professions have standards for addressing real or potential conflicts of interest – except bioethics. Critics from within and without the field have recently challenged the ethics and integrity of bioethicists, charging that these self-appointed watchdogs are little more than selfserving lapdogs.
We hope that by thinking carefully thinking about what nano studies is and how it should be done – and accepting that there are probably many different, useful answers to both questions – that we can mitigate such characterizations of our field in the future.