Recent research into the environmental fate of carbon nanotubes has underscored what until now has been a little-discussed aspect of nanotechnology – its potential societal implications.
To evaluate those implications and inform the resulting public policy debate, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have joined with colleagues at six other U.S. institutions to form the Center for Nanotechnology in Society. Headquartered at Arizona State University, the new center has so far received more than $6 million in funding from the National Science Foundation.
“Many experts think that nanotechnology is a fundamental and general technology that could have very widespread implications throughout society,” noted Philip Shapira, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy and a key contributor to the center. “Nanotechnology has the capability to not only radically change products and processes, but also to lead to both desirable and undesirable societal outcomes. We had better pay attention not only to research on the applications, but also to the potential social implications.”
Beyond the potential environmental impact of nanotechnology, policymakers will have to consider health-related issues, as well as the legal, ethical, economic, employment and competitiveness issues involved.
To do that, they’ll need an understanding of how and where nanotechnology may be developing. Georgia Tech’s contribution to the center will be in predicting where the field is headed, how nanotechnology might diverge and what its applications might be – through the production of real-time technology assessments.
“As the technology develops, we are going to provide information on nanotechnology system dynamics to help scientists, decision-makers, business leaders, policy officials and other community stakeholders make societal assessments in real-time,” Shapira explained. “There are already a number of startup companies working in nano, and a number of big companies that are incorporating nanotechnology into products. From looking at the applications that researchers and companies are pursuing, we want to get an edge on the societal issues.”
For instance, nanotechnology will likely spawn new industries – and make certain existing industries obsolete. Having a well-developed nanotechnology infrastructure may give countries a competitive edge.
“China is now the second largest publisher in the nanotechnology domain,” Shapira noted. “The idea that China is a low-wage threat to manufacturing – which is what people tend to think today – may be replaced by the realization that China is emerging as a major research and technology power. This could potentially be a big issue for the United States, Japan and Europe.”
Beyond the School of Public Policy, researchers from the Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, School of Economics, College of Management and Enterprise Innovation Institute will also contribute to the new center’s work – and collaborate with scientists and engineers who are developing the new technology.
“We want to engage the physical scientists as well as the social scientists on this campus,” Shapira added. “This will be a unique and important collaboration.”
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