Nanotechnology is known to become an industry of new products and new ways of engineering. Its great promise has also found great scepticism.
Discussions about nanotechnology as a multidisciplinary field have sparked as much attention as concern ranging from environmental issues to healthcare. Research councils reknown to evaluate science in universities regarding their usefulness for society and for upholding scientific standards play here a central role. While drawing in expertise from various directions evaluations by research councils have consequences for public funding. Meanwhile public concerns over new technologies are unfortunately voiced only in terms of public debate and public engagement of non government organizations (NGO) with government bodies. From this perspective organizations like Greenpeace are very important for public awareness over technological threats.
Research driven policies
Policy making is not organized only for economic usefulness. The decision process has become more complex as decisions are reached in an interplay between policy makers interested in precaution towards new technologies and others interested in their novelty or market potential. Thus research proposals attracting public funding have either an innovative character or are guided by a sustainable principle like renewable energy which conforms with a cautionary approach. However the novelty of the science could be transforming production cycles or consumption patterns and new ideas which have not been publically debated yet, could bear more revolutionary potential.
While science derives much of its potential from imagination, its results are culminated in a structured process. The context within which research is conducted is however often shaped by external influences, which are not always transparent. The suspicions are not unfounded. The directions of science in nanotechnology can be influenced or even exploited by applied technologies which already exist. These existing applied technologies may exist in the field of military, surveillance, medical or other applications. Moreover science in nanotechnology can be influenced directly by military or other purposes deemed useful by the proponents from these interest groups. In many cases divisions between academic research and applications in technology have become blurred increasing the danger of exploitation of the motivation of science in nanotechnology. Therefore a division between applications in nanotechnology and nanoscience could build a barrier between academic research and application driven search for military or other purposes. This would help to clear the confusion between “nanoscience” and applications in nanotechnology.
Directions of Research and Development
In areas where technology is heavily research driven the motivations of science reveal tangible values. Motivations and values are certainly of a subjective nature but it is necessary to include them in an open discussion about this scientific field if one wants to start a public debate about its possible directions. Maintaining a pessimistic stance however, certain research and development directions in nanotechnology are already decided by few expert groups before mainstream involvement can take place and a more democratic debate of what happens can occur.
The tendency of such discussions to revolve around particular questions like safety risks reveals that the direction of research has already been decided as fundamental discussions have about purpose and disadvantages have been subdued at this stage. At a stage where specific views as to what the desired outcomes of science are, have not taken hold of public opinion it is important to discuss the available options and to lay down their values to public scrutiny.
A lot of talk has been going on about evidence based policy making with respect to the new challenges. This approach is prone to the deficiency of talking about safety issues rather than questioning the legality of a technology. It would make sense to substitute it with another approach which would be to ask what the purpose or vision behind this particular science is. The awareness of the public about the motivations of science is fundamentally important. Awareness of the possible side effects which a new research field conceals, is necessary when it comes to its implementation.