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Development and Pilot Testing of an Evidence-Based Training Module for Integrating Social and Ethical Implications into the Lab


In this project, we (1) explore perceptions of the social and ethical implications (SEI) of nanotechnology among US scientists who work at the nanoscale, and (2) develop and pilot test an online training module to foster consideration of social and ethical implications in the lab. To meet our first goal, we drew qualitative insights from open-ended survey data collected from scientists affiliated with the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network. Our data suggest that while the survey participants responded positively to the idea that consideration of SEI should be a part of the work they do, there was confusion about whether SEI refers to lab safety, research integrity, or something more. This is something we sought to address in the online training module that we developed based on that qualitative data and on feedback collected from experts in nanoethics and lab management. We then pilot tested the module with undergraduate students studying nanotechnology in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program and with scientists registered to use a National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure-funded microelectronics research lab. The undergraduate data suggested that students appreciated the SEI training but wished professors and scientists would begin integrating the ideas therein into coursework and mentoring. The scientist data suggested that the module increased understanding of “social and ethical implications,” increased the perceived need to implement SEI into workplace routines, and, interestingly, heightened perceptions of risk associated with the scientists’ own work. The practical and theoretical implications of this work are discussed.

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This study received funding from National Science Foundation National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure grant ECCS-1542159 and the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network Social and Ethical Issues Seed Grant Program.

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Correspondence to Lee Ann Kahlor.

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Appendix 1. Screenshots of content from the SEI training module

figure a

Appendix 2. Study 2 scientist survey

The following survey items ask you to think about the social and ethical implications of nanotechnology. We leave these terms open to your interpretation.

  1. 1.

    When you hear the phrase “the social and ethical implications of nanotechnology,” what does this phrase mean to you? Here we are just looking for your interpretation of the phrase. (Essay response)

Next, please indicate how much you agree or disagree with each of the following statements (these were formatted as 5-point agree-disagree or likelihood scales).

  1. 2.

    I am familiar with some of the ethical and/or social concerns posed by nanotechnology.

  2. 3.

    I have thought about the social and/or ethical implications of nanotechnology.

  3. 4.

    I have come across information about the social and/or ethical implications of nanotechnology.

  4. 5.

    There is a need for implementing the consideration of nanoethics into my routine practices.

  5. 6.

    How likely is it that you will be impacted by the potential risks posed by nanotechnology?

  6. 7.

    How likely is it that your workplace will be impacted by the potential risks posed by nanotechnology?

  7. 8.

    How likely is it that the environment will be impacted by the potential risks posed by nanotechnology?

  8. 9.

    How likely is it that society will be impacted by the potential risks posed by nanotechnology?

The following video was developed to introduce you to ways we might think about the social and ethical implications of nanotechnology. Viewing this video is a requirement for working in the MRC labs. After the video, you will need to answer a few questions. The video is about 16 min long. [Trainees viewed the module here.]

  1. 10.

    We’d like you to reflect once again on the phrase “the social and ethical implications of nanotechnology.” What does it refer to? (Essay response)

Please note your level of agreement with the following statements:

  1. 11.

    There is a need for implementing the consideration of nanoethics into my routine practices.

  2. 12.

    How might you think about ethics in the context of your own work? (Essay response)

  3. 13.

    What are the four levels of ethical consideration presented in the video? (Essay response)

  4. 14.

    How likely is it that you will be impacted by the potential risks posed by nanotechnology?

  5. 15.

    How likely is it that your workplace will be impacted by the potential risks posed by nanotechnology?

  6. 16.

    How likely is it that the environment will be impacted by the potential risks posed by nanotechnology?

  7. 17.

    How likely is it that society will be impacted by the potential risks posed by nanotechnology?

  8. 18.

    How might you be (or become) an ethical leader? (Essay response)

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Kahlor, L.A., Li, X. & Jones, J. Development and Pilot Testing of an Evidence-Based Training Module for Integrating Social and Ethical Implications into the Lab. Nanoethics 13, 37–52 (2019).

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  • Nanoethics
  • Social and ethical implications
  • SEI
  • Ethics training
  • Lab training