Societal implications of nanotechnology

Societal implications of nanotechnology

The societal implications of nanotechnology are the potential benefits and challenges that the introduction of novel nanotechnological devices and materials may hold for society and human interaction. The term is sometimes expanded to also include nanotechnology's health and environmental implications, but this artcle will only consider the social and political implications of nanotechnology.

As nanotechnology is an emerging field and most of its applications are still speculative, there is much debate about what positive and negative effects that nanotechnology might have.


Beyond the toxicity risks to human health and the environment which are associated with first-generation nanomaterials, nanotechnology has broader societal implications and poses broader social challenges. Social scientists have suggested that nanotechnology's social issues should be understood and assessed not simply as "downstream" risks or impacts. Rather, the challenges should be factored into "upstream" research and decision making in order to ensure technology development that meets social objectives [Citation| last =Kearnes| first =Matthew| last2 =Grove-White| first2 =Robin| last3 =Macnaghten|first3 =Phil|last4 =Wilsdon|first4 =James|last5 =Wynne|first5=Brian
publication-date = December 2006| title =From Bio to Nano: Learning Lessons from the UK Agricultural Biotechnology Controversy| volume =15| issue= 4| series =Science as Culture| publisher = Routledge| doi =10.1080/09505430601022619| pages= 291 - 307| url = |accessdate =2007-10-19

Many social scientists and organizations in civil society suggest that technology assessment and governance should also involve public participation [] [ [ Nanotechnology Law & Business ] ] [] [ [ Demos | Publications | Governing at the Nanoscale ] ]

Some observers suggest that nanotechnology will build incrementally, as did the 18-19th century industrial revolution, until it gathers pace to drive a nanotechnological revolution that will radically reshape our economies, our labor markets, international trade, international relations, social structures, civil liberties, our relationship with the natural world and even what we understand to be human. Others suggest that it may be more accurate to describe change driven by nanotechnology as a “technological tsunami”. Just like a tsunami, analysts warn that rapid nanotechnology-driven change will necessarily have profound disruptive impacts. As the APEC Center for Technology Foresight observes:

If nanotechnology is going to revolutionize manufacturing, health care, energy supply, communications and probably defense, then it will transform labour and the workplace, the medical system, the transportation and power infrastructures and the military. None of these latter will be changed without significant social disruption. [ [ Publication ] ]

Those concerned with the negative implications of nanotechnology suggest that it will simply exacerbate problems stemming from existing socio-economic inequity and unequal distributions of power, creating greater inequities between rich and poor through an inevitable nano-divide (the gap between those who control the new nanotechnologies and those whose products, services or labour are displaced by them). Analysts suggest the possibility that nanotechnology has the potential to destabilize international relations through a nano arms race and the increased potential for bioweaponry; thus, providing the tools for ubiquitous surveillance with significant implications for civil liberties. Also, many critics believe it might break down the barriers between life and non-life through nanobiotechnology, redefining even what it means to be human. [ [ ETC Group - Publications - The Little Big Down: A Small Introduction to Nano-scale Technologies ] ] []

Nanoethicists posit that such a transformative technology could exacerbate the divisions of rich and poor – the so-called “nano divide.” However nanotechnology makes the production of technology, e.g. computers, celular phones, health technology etcetera, cheaper and therefore accessible to the poor.

In fact, many of the most enthusiastic proponents of nanotechnology, such as transhumanists, see the nascent science as a mechanism to changing human nature itself – going beyond curing disease and enhancing human characteristics. Discussions on nanoethics have been hosted by the federal government, especially in the context of “converging technologies” – a catch-phrase used to refer to nano, biotech, information technology, and cognitive science.

Possible military applications

Societal risks from the use of nanotechnology have also been raised. On the instrumental level, these include the possibility of military applications of nanotechnology (for instance, as in implants and other means for soldier enhancement like those being developed at the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT [] ) as well as enhanced surveillance capabilities through nano-sensors. [Monahan, Torin and Tyler Wall. 2007. Somatic Surveillance: Corporeal Control through Information Networks. Surveillance & Society 4 (3): 154-173. [] ] There is also the possibility of nanotechnology being used to develop chemical weapons and because they will be able to develop the chemicals from the atom scale up, critics fear that chemical weapons developed from nano particles will be more dangerous than present chemical weapons.

Intellectual property issues

On the structural level, critics of nanotechnology point to a new world of ownership and corporate control opened up by nanotechnology. The claim is that, just as biotechnology's ability to manipulate genes went hand in hand with the patenting of life, so too nanotechnology's ability to manipulate molecules has led to the patenting of matter. The last few years has seen a gold rush to claim patents at the nanoscale. Over 800 nano-related patents were granted in 2003, and the numbers are increasing year to year. Corporations are already taking out broad-ranging patents on nanoscale discoveries and inventions. For example, two corporations, NEC and IBM, hold the basic patents on carbon nanotubes, one of the current cornerstones of nanotechnology. Carbon nanotubes have a wide range of uses, and look set to become crucial to several industries from electronics and computers, to strengthened materials to drug delivery and diagnostics. Carbon nanotubes are poised to become a major traded commodity with the potential to replace major conventional raw materials. However, as their use expands, anyone seeking to (legally) manufacture or sell carbon nanotubes, no matter what the application, must first buy a license from NEC or IBM. [] []

The United State's essential facilities doctrine may be of importance as well as other anti-trust laws.

Potential benefits and risks for developing countries

Nanotechnologies may provide new solutions for the millions of people in developing countries who lack access to basic services, such as safe water, reliable energy, health care, and education. The United Nations has set Millennium Development Goals for meeting these needs. The 2004 UN Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation noted that some of the advantages of nanotechnology include production using little labor, land, or maintenance, high productivity, low cost, and modest requirements for materials and energy.

Many developing countries, for example Costa Rica, Chile, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia, are investing considerable resources in research and development of nanotechnologies. Emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa are spending millions of US dollars annually on R&D, and are rapidly increasing their scientific output as demonstrated by their increasing numbers of publications in peer-reviewed scientific publications.

Potential opportunities of nanotechnologies to help address critical international development priorities include improved water purification systems, energy systems, medicine and pharmaceuticals, food production and nutrition, and information and communications technologies. Nanotechnologies are already incorporated in products that are on the market. Other nanotechnologies are still in the research phase, while others are concepts that are years or decades away from development.

Applying nanotechnologies in developing countries raises similar questions about the environmental, health, and societal risks described in the previous section. Additional challenges have been raised regarding the linkages between nanotechnology and development.

Protection of the environment, human health and worker safety in developing countries often suffers from a combination of factors that can include but are not limited to lack of robust environmental, human health, and worker safety regulations; poorly or unenforced regulation which is linked to a lack of physical (e.g., equipment) and human capacity (i.e., properly trained regulatory staff). Often, these nations require assistance, particularly financial assistance, to develop the scientific and institutional capacity to adequately assess and manage risks, including the necessary infrastructure such as laboratories and technology for detection.

Very little is known about the risks and broader impacts of nanotechnology. At a time of great uncertainty over the impacts of nanotechnology it will be challenging for governments, companies, civil society organizations, and the general public in developing countries, as in developed countries, to make decisions about the governance of nanotechnology.

Companies, and to a lesser extent governments and universities, are receiving patents on nanotechnology. The rapid increase in patenting of nanotechnology is illustrated by the fact that in the US, there were 500 nanotechnology patent applications in 1998 and 1,300 in 2000. Some patents are very broadly defined, which has raised concern among some groups that the rush to patent could slow innovation and drive up costs of products, thus reducing the potential for innovations that could benefit low income populations in developing countries.

There is a clear link between commodities and poverty. Many least developed countries are dependent on a few commodities for employment, government revenue, and export earnings. Many applications of nanotechnology are being developed that could impact global demand for specific commodities. For instance, certain nanoscale materials could enhance the strength and durability of rubber, which might eventually lead to a decrease in demand for natural rubber. Other nanotechnology applications may result in increases in demand for certain commodities. For example, demand for titanium may increase as a result of new uses for nanoscale titanium oxides, such as titanium dioxide nanotubes that can be used to produce and store hydrogen for use as fuel. Various organizations have called for international dialogue on mechanisms that will allow developing countries to anticipate and proactively adjust to these changes.

In 2003, [ Meridian Institute] began the [ Global Dialogue on Nanotechnology and the Poor: Opportunities and Risks (GDNP)] to raise awareness of the opportunities and risks of nanotechnology for developing countries, close the gaps within and between sectors of society to catalyze actions that address specific opportunities and risks of nanotechnology for developing countries, and identify ways that science and technology can play an appropriate role in the development process. The GDNP has released several publicly accessible papers on nanotechnology and development, including [ "Nanotechnology and the Poor: Opportunities and Risks - Closing the Gaps Within and Between Sectors of Society"] ; [ "Nanotechnology, Water, and Development"] ; and [ "Overview and Comparison of Conventional and Nano-Based Water Treatment Technologies"] .

Social justice and civil liberties

Concerns are frequently raised that the claimed benefits of nanotechnology will not be evenly distributed, and that any benefits (including technical and/or economic) associated with nanotechnology will only reach affluent nations.cite journal |author=Invernizzi N, Foladori G and Maclurcan D |title=Nanotechnology's Controversial Role for the South |journal=Science Technology and Society |volume=13 |issue=1 |pages=123–148 |year= 2008 |doi=10.1177/097172180701300105] The majority of nanotechnology research and development - and patents for nanomaterials and products - is concentrated in developed countries (including the United States, Japan, Germany, Canada and France). In addition, most patents related to nanotechnology are concentrated amongst few multinational corporations, including IBM, Micron Technologies, Advanced Micro Devices and Intel. [cite paper |title=Nanotech's "Second Nature" Patents: Implications for the Global South, Communiques No. 87 and 88, March/April and May June |publisher=ETC Group |year=2005 |url= ] This has lead to fears that it will be unlikely that developing countries will have access to the infrastructure, funding and human resources required to support nanotechnology research and development, and that this is likely to exacerbate such inequalities.

The agriculture and food industries demonstrate the concentration of nanotechnology related patents. Patents over seeds, plant material, animal and other agri-food techniques are already concentrated amongst a few corporations. This is anticipated to increase the cost of farming, by increasing farmers' input dependence. This may marginalize poorer farmers, including those living in developing countries. [cite journal |author=Scrinis G, and Lyons K |title=The Emerging Nano-Corporate Paradigm and the Transformation of Agri-Food Systems |journal=International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food |volume=15 |issue=2 |year=2007 ]

Producers in developing countries could also be disadvantaged by the replacement of natural products (including rubber, cotton, coffee and tea) by developments in nanotechnology. These natural products are important export crops for developing countries, and many farmers' livelihoods depend on them. It has been argued that their substitution with industrial nano-products could negatively impact the economies of developing countries, that have traditionally relied on these export crops.

It is proposed that nanotechnology can only be effective in alleviating poverty and aid development "when adapted to social, cultural and local institutional contexts, and chosen and designed with the active participation by citizens right from the commencement point" (Invernizzi et al 2008, p. 132).


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