Monday, October 02, 2006

Nanoethics Paper

I have just finished a paper entitled “Deliberative Democracy and Nanotechnology” which is forthcoming in Nanoethics: Examining the Societal Impact of Nanotechnology (NJ: John Wiley and Sons Inc.) edited by Fritz Allhoff, Patrick Lin, James Moor and John Weckert. I hope to post the full paper on my research page in due time. But until then here is a sample (the introduction) of the paper.


Two recent reports concerning nanotechnology illustrate both its potential promise and its potential peril. The first report is the encouraging news that nanotechnology might help in the delivery of gene therapy (Dobson, 2006). World-wide, there are over 1 000 clinical trials for gene therapy. There are currently 797 clinical trials for cancer, 102 trials for monogenetic diseases and 106 for vascular diseases.[1] Gene therapy involves switching off defective genes or inserting desirable genes into the cells to prevent or cure disease. One of the major obstacles facing gene therapy has been gene delivery. That is, ensuring that the desired genes get into the correct cells. Nanotechnology might provide a solution to this problem. The efficacy of magnetic nanoparticle-based gene delivery has been demonstrated most clearly in vitro (Dobson, 2006, 286). This technique involves coupling genetic material to magnetic nanoparticles. “The particle/DNA complex (normally in suspension) is introduced into the cell culture where the field gradient produced by rare earth magnets (or electromagnets) placed below the cell culture increases sedimentation of the complex and increases the speed of transfection (Dobson, 2006, 283).

The optimism one takes from the encouraging news about utilizing nanoparticle-based gene delivery is often tempered by news reports concerning the potential dangers of nanotechnology. The April 15th (2006) issue of the Economist reported the story about Magic Nano, a bathroom cleaner that contains tiny silicate particles that reduce the scope for dirt and bacteria to cling to surfaces. Magic Nano went on sale in Germany in March 2006. Three days after it went on sale it “was withdrawn from the market after nearly 80 people reported severe respiratory problems and six were admitted to hospital with fluid in their lungs” (Economist, 2006, 80). The Magic Nano incident lead critics of nanotechnology, like Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), to call for a global moratorium on nanotech research[2]. The concern (whether just perceived or real) that nanomaterials pose serious environmental, health, and safety risks is one of the major obstacles facing these new technologies.

The contrasting stories we hear concerning the potential pros and cons of nanotechnology illustrate the importance of taking seriously the question of what would constitute an ethical regulation of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology covers such a diverse spectrum of technologies (e.g. therapeutic, etc.) that different values and principles are appropriate for regulating different kinds of nanotechnologies. Those who feel that both sides of the pro- and anti-nanotechnology debate have valid concerns might feel that the real challenge we face is finding a reasonable compromise between these different values rather than crowning any one value (e.g. efficiency) or principle (the pre-cautionary principle[3]) as “supreme”.

One social theory that offers us a pluralistic and contextual ethical analysis of nanotechnology is deliberative democracy. Instead of trying to win a philosophical argument concerning the viability of first-order principles (e.g. efficiency, safety, etc.), deliberative democrats are more concerned with determining what would constitute a reasonable balance between conflicting fundamental values. In this paper I will examine what deliberative democracy can prescribe in terms of addressing the ethical and social concerns raised by nanotechnology. By examining how deliberative democracy applies to nanotechnology we see that an ethical regulation of nanotechnologies requires a division of labor between many different institutions and individuals. I argue that deliberative democracy prescribes that an ethical regulation of nanotechnologies requires responsible legislative activism which in turn requires accurate scientific information as well as an informed and reflective citizenry. Thus the ethical obligations of deliberative democracy extend to the way scientists conduct and communicate their research as well as to the way the media reports about nanoscience. The actions of scientists and journalists play a vital role in the formation of the reflective preferences of the larger citizenry. Thus deliberative democrats believe that informed, reasoned debate on accommodating the different stakes involved with regulating different kinds of nanotechnologies is essential if we hope to implement a fair and humane regulation of these new technologies.