NanoEthics

, Volume 4, Issue 3, pp 221–228

Proposed Strategies for Teaching Ethics of Nanotechnology

Authors

    • School of EngineeringGrand Valley State University
  • Heidi Jiao
    • School of EngineeringGrand Valley State University
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s11569-010-0100-0

Cite this article as:
Barakat, N. & Jiao, H. Nanoethics (2010) 4: 221. doi:10.1007/s11569-010-0100-0

Abstract

Nanotechnology and nanosciences have recently gained tremendous attention and funding, from multiple entities and directions. In the last 10 years the funding for nanotechnology research has increased by orders of magnitude. An important part that has also gained parallel attention is the societal and ethical impact of nanotechnology and the possible consequences of its products and processes on human life and welfare. Multiple thinkers and philosophers wrote about both negative and positive effects of nanotechnology on humans and societies. The literature has a considerable amount of views about nanotechnology that range from calling for the abandonment and blockage of all efforts in that direction to complete support and encouragement in hopes that nanotechnology will be the next big jump in ameliorating human life and welfare. However, amidst all this hype about the ethics of nanotechnology, relatively less efforts and resources can be found in the literature to help engineering professionals and educators, and to provide practical methods and techniques for teaching ethics of nanotechnology and relating the technical side of it to the societal and human aspect. The purpose of this paper is to introduce strategies and ideas for teaching ethics of nanotechnology in engineering in relation to engineering codes of ethics. The paper is neither a new philosophical view about ethics of nanotechnology nor a discussion of the ethical dimensions of nanotechnology. This is an attempt to help educators and professionals by answering the question of how to incorporate ethics of nanotechnology in the educational process and practice of engineering and what is critical for the students and professionals to know in that regard. The contents of the presented strategies and ideas focus on the practical aspects of ethical issues related to nanotechnology and its societal impact. It also builds a relation between these issues and engineering codes of ethics. The pedagogical components of the strategies are based on best-practices to produce independent life-long self-learners and critical thinkers. These strategies and ideas can be incorporated as a whole or in part, in the engineering curriculum, to raise awareness of the ethical issues related to nanotechnology, improve the level of professionalism among engineering graduates, and apply ABET criteria. It can also be used in the way of professional development and continuing education courses to benefit professional engineers. Educators and institutions are welcome to use these strategies, a modified version, or even a further developed version of it, that suits their needs and circumstances.

Keywords

Nanotechnology ethics educationNanotechnology education pedagogiesPractical ethics education

Introduction

Advances in nanotechnology and related nanosciences are now beyond the laboratory development phase [1]. Products and devices based on nanotechnology have already hit the market and reached the hands of consumers [2]. In the US, the 25 agencies, including NSF, comprising the National Nanotechnology Initiative have spent almost $1.4 billion on nanotechnology in FY 2007 and nearly $1.5 billion for FY 2008 [3]. Many future developments and technologies are still anticipated or promised based on nanotechnology. Consequently, the efforts are now directed towards building a critically-needed national knowledge base and a trained workforce to achieve a global competitive edge [4]. One of the positive aspects about these efforts and activities is that funding agencies and researchers have called for the inclusion of ethical and societal impacts of nanotechnology at an early stage [46]. The lessons learned from previous experiences with technology and its ethical and societal impact have been sobering. Examples of those include the case of asbestos effects on health, where actual technologically inflected harm on the public has occurred, and the case of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Europe, where poor public knowledge have resulted in public rejection of a promising technology. As a result, it is now an international goal that humanities and social sciences become integrated in emerging and interdisciplinary fields, of which nanotechnology is one. Funding and controlling agencies of nanotechnology activities, like the NSF and the EC, are taking the position of encouraging and even requesting engagement of the public in any proposed technological development or discovery, through the integration of the societal and ethical dimension [4, 6]. Public engagement aims at creating debate by increasing transparency to gain public trust. The ultimate goal is to achieve public correct education, which leads to informed decisions. By properly presenting the facts to the public, on the one hand, less room is left for mythical and imaginary fears and hopes of nanotechnology, and more chances are given to realities and tolerance by the public. On the other hand, expectations about the capabilities of nanotechnology are tamed to reality and practicality. Therefore, knowledgeable individuals involved in nanotechnology, especially professionals, have a duty to participate in ethical discussions and inform the public, the decision makers, and fellow professionals. These knowledgeable individuals are citizens with special expertise creating a specific responsibility [6].

Philosophers and researchers have established that nanotechnology is a multi disciplinary field and that the direction it serves dictates the issues. There are common ethical issues with nanotechnology like the question of nano-divide in society. However, specific issues will become eminent depending on the direction and field that nanotechnology serves. Specific ethical issues related to applications in military are somewhat different from those related to applications affecting the environment or the human body. Some thinkers went even as far as suggesting different societal impacts, depending on cultural differences, which dictate a mixture of linguistic and ideological definitions of certain terms used for identifying nanotechnology, and therefore perceptions [7]. Moreover, multiple publications can be found in the literature discussing nanotechnology ethics as being the same as bioethics since nanotechnology is deeply utilized in improving the instruments of the health industry and pharmaceutical products [8]. Nevertheless, professional engineers and engineering students need to learn and utilize the practical ethics related to nanotechnology in any context. Therefore, a need for creativity and effort in this area is necessary to provide engineers with the full picture of nanotechnology including its human and societal dimensions at an early stage, not after the fact. For ethics to be part of the process or product and to be part of everyday practice of the profession it has to be brought in simultaneously with the technical concepts. Being an ad hoc topic or a reparation service for damages, after the fact, or for a design after the critical decisions have been made will strip ethics from any possible added value.

This paper includes some suggested strategies to help engineering educators and professionals integrate nanotechnology ethics in the curriculum as well as in continuous professional development plans. In addition, some practical techniques for implementing these strategies and integrating nanotechnology ethics in the curriculum are proposed. These ideas and experiences will be implemented in the nanotechnology courses being established as part of the engineering curriculum at Grand Valley State University (GVSU). This work is part of a project supported by NSF grant to integrate nanotechnology into the undergraduate engineering curriculum, awarded to the authors. The paper starts by summarizing the main ethical issues related to nanotechnology and mapping them to relevant ethical concepts and code pieces in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME-International) code of ethics. ASME code of ethics was chosen as a representative code for any professional engineering organization code of ethics. This is followed by suggested strategies and techniques to teach ethics of nanotechnology to engineering students or incorporate it in engineers’ continuous professional development plans. It is to be noted here that the goals of the strategies have some abstract elements to them to allow as much freedom as possible for the implementing agency or instructor to tailor the goals to the application of nanotechnology at hand.

Ethical Issues in Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology aims at improving human life and welfare and achieving broader societal visions of an upgraded life and healthcare, improved productivity, and better understanding of nature. Philosophy and ethics allow for a broader level of questions to be included alongside the technical inquiry of nanotechnology like its effect on humanity and good life. However, this might lead to one or both of risk exaggeration, and promise over-expectations, about nanotechnology, which are usually proportional to the lack of factual knowledge associated with the technology. Moreover, the fact that nanotechnology is multidisciplinary in nature produces a variety of ethical and societal impacts that add a lot to the mixture. The literature has plenty of related ethical issues discussed in depth and breadth. These issues and thoughts range from being imaginary and based on science fiction, without any scientific proofs or evidence, to real tangible issues that have been reported and are being experienced [9]. Ethical issues and societal impact of nanotechnology are usually divided between three different categories as follows:
  1. 1.

    Life-basics ethics (Risk and “first do no harm” ethics). This includes concepts like autonomy. Examples of issues under this category include military applications, fear of uncontrolled actions (e.g. run-away reactions and uncontrolled self replications), and health hazards.

     
  2. 2.

    Life-quality ethics (Justice and equality ethics): This includes ideas like the nano-divide where the gap between rich and poor nations will increase.

     
  3. 3.

    Life and human definition ethics: This includes the concept of integrity as a human and issues related to human change.

     
As was mentioned above, some of these issues are realistic and some are fears which can sometimes be unfounded. Therefore, it is not possible for engineers to take into consideration all of these issues and integrate them in their profession. Realistic societal impacts and ethical concerns, especially those influencing an engineering decision or practice, or those founded on solid scientific evidence, should be considered without hesitation. An appropriate method to screen ethical issues and decide which ones should be considered by engineers and engineering educators is to follow the lead of an engineering code of ethics. Codes of ethics provide a frame for dealing with ethical issues that face the engineering professionals as well as a focus for debate on professional ethics evolution. Included, in Table 1, is a mapping between nanotechnology ethics and societal impact and the code of ethics of the ASME – international as a starting point [10 and Appendix A]. Ethical and societal issues related to nanotechnology that are repeated in the literature are also mapped to the appropriate category from the abovementioned list, as well as the relevant influence they could have on engineering practices and decisions. As the table shows, a set of ethical issues related to nanotechnology, which are discussed in the literature, are covered by the general cannons of the code of ethics. These issues would directly influence an engineering decision in the product, process, or practice. However, the table also includes another set of issues which are not covered by the codes of ethics. This set includes issues which are either evolutionary, requiring a thorough discussion and a decision for consideration in the codes of ethics, or based on suppositions and possibilities which either require further evidence and proofs, or depend on an unknown possible destiny of a product or technology, to be considered.
Table 1

Ethical issues related to nanotechnology mapped to relevant cannons in the ASME code of ethics (provided in Appendix A) and relevant influences of these issues on the engineering product or process

Ethical issue/Question

Category from above

Relevant ASME code of ethics [Appendix A]

Effect on the engineering process, product, or practice

Sustainability

1

Cannon 8

Resources used, material selection, product life cycle, recycling

Environment

1

Cannon 8

Resources used, material selection, product life cycle, recycling

Safety standards

1

Cannon 1

Product and process design and execution

Privacy, consent

1

Cannon 4 & 5

Engineering practice

Human enhancement

3

Cannon 1

Safety in every step

Objectivity

1

Cannon 2 & 7

Honor, integrity

Do no harm

1

Cannon 1

Safety in every step

Equality

2

Cannon 1

Resources accommodation

Military application

1

N/A

Unknown

Misuse and exploitation

1

N/A

Unknown

Grey Goo fears

1

N/A

Unknown

Continuous monitoring

1

N/A

Unknown

Nano-divide and distribution

2

N/A

Unknown

The exposure of engineers and students to all possible ethical issues related to nanotechnology is recommended. However, there has to be a careful distinction between what engineers and engineering students are required to do regarding these issues, and what they are supposed to just be aware of until proven to be realistic, or thoroughly discussed by professionals within their organizations for a conclusion. Issues should not be labeled according to ethical correctness, especially when they are speculative or precautionary. The idea is to create awareness and sensitivity and include ethical and societal issues at the early stages of nanotechnology (or new technology) endeavors by utilizing proven rules, which will mitigate the risks. These rules can be derived from existing engineering codes of ethics or similar sources.

Strategies to Teach Ethics of Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology provides a new context for a different mixture of ethics from different technological bases and experiences. Whenever technology evolves, a new context is produced and a different set of ethical reflections emerges, in addition to concerns that have always paralleled technology innovation like sustainability, risk assessment, and interaction with human beings. Therefore, it is critical that as engineering students are taught about ethics and the societal impact of nanotechnology, they are being equipped with tools to face any possible new scenario successfully. Following are three main suggested strategies on how to go about this topic:
  1. 1.

    Teaching ethics is not about teaching right and wrong. It is about producing morally autonomous engineers. The idea should always be to make engineers morally sensitive and equipped to detect and handle any ethical situation that they might face in their profession. In addition, ethics should be taught similar to engineering technical knowledge. Students should be taught how to continuously learn and extrapolate as well as how to find the appropriate tools and information, on their own. They should be taught how to fish not be given fish. Codes of ethics of any engineering professional organization are adequate and available tools for quick reference. However, the knowledge should be about their essence and how to apply these codes, not about memorizing them or applying them blindly. They are a framework not a final solution or recipe.

     
  2. 2.

    Nanotechnology still has many of its parts in the early stages. Therefore, sufficiently relevant information and knowledge to properly assess the ethical impact of many parts of nanotechnology and their use is not available yet. A lot of what has been proposed in the literature is speculative or comparative to historical events and lessons learned from the events and experiences of a previous technology (e.g. biotechnology). Proactive discussions and precautionary measures are always encouraged and useful. However, that is always associated with the risk of creating unjustified societal and psychological limits which can be translated into real legal and political barriers leading to rejection by the public. This rejection might end up being based on false fears and misinformed interpretations associated with the precautionary and proactive issues raised. For these reasons, scientists and engineers involved in nanotechnology have a duty to take part in ethical discussions within both the professional and the political contexts. When taking part in the discussion, these professionals have to be fully informed, objective, and honest in their statements.

     
  3. 3.

    Ethical consideration should be integrated in engineering endeavors as design constraints or functional requirements at a very early stage. This will guarantee an effective influence of ethics on the critical decision and directions of endeavor. However, it should not bind resources or jeopardize development, which requires a reasonable balance to be found. Risk-benefit analysis techniques come in handy in such situations.

     

Proposed Techniques and Practices to Teach Nanotechnology Ethics

Integrating ethics of nanotechnology into the engineering curriculum can be done in a variety of ways, depending on the available resources and existing infrastructure for ethics teaching, as long as the strategies listed above are taken into consideration. There are three elements that need to be covered in order for the engineer to gain a structured and effective education and awareness of ethics and the societal impact of nanotechnology. These elements are:
  1. 1.

    Ethics bases and concepts: These include the origins and frames governing professional and practical ethics as opposed to general theories of ethics. Included also are codes of ethics and engineers responsibility as well as concepts of societal impact and good works. This particular element can be reduced and increased depending on the resources. Nevertheless, the minimum amount of this element for engineers to know should include the essence of professional codes of ethics and how to apply it or project it on the different situation and activities they could encounter during practicing engineering.

     
  2. 2.

    Nanotechnology specific ethics: These include the ethical issues and societal impacts which are spread over the literature as well as any that come up during professional activities in the area of nanotechnology. The most appropriate place for this element is within a course of nanotechnology, but that is not a limitation to integrating this element in a general engineering ethics course. However, the strategies mentioned above should be considered when building a module to handle this element. Not every issue in the literature is a possible candidate for engineers to worry about.

     
  3. 3.

    Ethics applications in nanotechnology products and processes: These include possible areas of application where ethics and societal impacts of nanotechnology might influence a crucial decision or a direction in an engineering activity. Examples of these areas include material selection and safety rules in design and processing. This element is the most challenging for educators to support and implement because it changes the fundamental and traditional way synthesis and analysis are done in engineering and imposes extra constraints that might look as if barring progress. It also requires creativity and finding middle ground solutions to conflicting constraints, which is not always an obvious choice. Embedding this element in engineering activities and making it part of the practice is the most effective way to achieve the first cannon of any engineering code of ethics [10].

     

Following are some techniques that could be proposed here to cover these elements by engineers working in the area of nanotechnology. These are not the only available techniques but a set that is based on a successful experience in teaching engineering ethics and societal impacts of engineering activities. The sequence of the three abovementioned elements has to be included to provide a full picture of the topic. Before exploring the techniques, the location of the above three elements in the curriculum can be as follows: The first element can be covered in a general course of engineering ethics or even in general-education ethics. This element provides a background and context for the student to understand the roots of the ethical issues being posed. The second element is most appropriately covered if included within the nanotechnology course or activity. Many teaching techniques can be used in this part, including case studies and guest speakers. However, as was previously pointed out, not every issue in the literature will have an impact on the engineering activity. Ethical considerations which are proven or based on a reliable source, like the code of ethics from an engineering organization, are the most appropriate to start with. The third element is where challenges lie. This element depends on many factors including the awareness of the educator and resources availability like time, among others. By covering this element, ethical issues can be spread throughout the curriculum and re-emphasized many times. Some techniques to cover this element can be imported from best-practices previous successful experiences in teaching engineering ethics, with some extrapolation.

The first technique capitalizes on engineers’ training to detect patterns and comfortably deal with numbers and formulae. Codifying nanotechnology ethics by relating them to corresponding cannons in codes of ethics then projecting these coded concepts on situations and decisions will make integrating ethics in the engineering activity a natural process. It becomes like another formula to use and apply. Systematic and continuous projection of these coded concepts every time there is a possible question on ethics or societal impact upgrades the exercise to a solid habit. Even if ethics is just “another formula,” although the hope is that it is more than that, this way it is guaranteed to be included from the beginning. As a simplified example, take for instance the issue of protecting the environment. Nanoparticles effect on the environment might not be known. This raises an ethical issue that would correspond to cannon 8 of the ASME code of ethics [10]. Cannon 8 states that: “Engineers shall consider environmental impact and sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.” Associated interpretations and expansions of the cannon would be used for a better understanding and application, but the main idea is provided by the statement of the cannon. Now that the issue is coded, engineers faced with a decision related to utilizing nanoparticles on a wide scale (outside controlled environment) would take extra measures to ensure that cannon 8 is not opposed or broken. That means extensive timely tests and even measures to reverse and collect nanoparticles in the case of a problem. This is part of the code they learned and they are applying it systematically.

Another technique is to attach the ethical question as a tag question to every step in a design of experiment or lab procedure. By asking if the step taken has any impact on human health, safety, the environment, or sustainability concepts, consideration of the ethical dimension becomes an introspective process built in the engineering activity. An appropriate series of questions that can be posed at every step could be: what could possibly go wrong with this step? What would the impact be on humans, the environment, and the society at large? What is the solution? How can the danger be mitigated? The same set of questions can be integrated as an essential constraint when performing synthesis or analysis. If these questions are brought up in every design review or guided exercise as an interactive discussion that would be another ideal scenario to bring engineers’ attention to the ethical dimension of their work.

One last remark is that on the one hand, lower level engineering students (freshman and sophomore) are more comfortable and accepting to the debate and top-down (reductionist) classical models when instructing ethics. This is due to, mainly, their limited professional and technical experience which dictates a limited professional ethics experience and requires a lot of background information to be provided to build a context. On the other hand, upper level engineering students and practicing engineers can use the previous method or can opt to using case studies and research of selected cases to illustrate both the positive and the negative sides of ethical issues in nanotechnology. In either case, case studies are definitely a good technique especially if they are not quite easy to judge and require debate.

Conclusion

Nanotechnology products have now reached the hands of consumers simultaneously with a slew of ethical issues and concerns for its broader societal impact. These ethical issues range from realistic to fictitious and differ by the different areas where nanotechnology is being applied, due to the multidisciplinary nature of nanotechnology. However, practical ethics of nanotechnology for engineers and engineering educators to apply are still in the development phase. Creative efforts are required in the area of practical nanotechnology ethics for engineers to move in parallel with engineering education and practice and become an effective element at critical and decisive stages of the engineering endeavor.

Ethical issues related to nanotechnology are plenty. The subset of these issues that relates to engineering practice can be integrated in the engineering curriculum or the plan for continuous professional development using many techniques. To achieve this goal, some suggested practical strategies as well as practical techniques for implementation have been proposed. These techniques are based on successful best-practices and experiences which have been implemented in teaching ethics before. Extrapolation and creative derivation from these techniques will result in a variety of methods to integrate nanotechnology ethics in engineering. It is vitally important that ethics become an essential part of any nanotechnology engineering product or process. However, it is equally important to carefully include relevant ethical issues and not be distracted by unfounded or speculative issues.

Acknowledgment

This work was partially suported by NSF through Grant number NUE 09-533.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010