NSF PR 03-89 - August 25, 2003
NSF Awards New Grants to Study Societal Implications of Nanotechnology
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced two new
grants, well over $1 million apiece, that greatly expand its
ongoing commitment to study the societal implications of
nanotechnology: the emerging discipline that seeks to
control and manipulate matter on a molecular scale. The
grants will be by far the largest awards the foundation has
devoted to societal implications exclusively.
Nanotech has often been hailed as a "transformative"
technology--one that could change the way we live and work as
profoundly as did the microchip or the automobile. That's
why the NSF and 16 other federal agencies are supporting a
nearly $1 billion-a-year National Nanotechnology Initiative,
in an effort to speed the development along.
"But like any powerful new technology," says NSF Director
Rita Colwell, "nanotech also has the potential for
unintended consequences--which is precisely why we can't
allow the societal implications to be an afterthought. The
program has to build in a concern for those implications
from the start."
Indeed, says Davis Baird, a philosopher at the University of
South Carolina and principal investigator on one of the two
new grants, technologies that don't do that have a way of
coming to grief later on. Witness the widespread opposition
to nuclear energy, and more recently, to genetically
modified organisms. "So how can we go down a better path
with nanotechnology?" Baird asks.
The grant to South Carolina will allow Baird and his
colleagues to tackle that question by setting up an ongoing
dialog among as many points of view as possible. Just as
researchers need to consider societal implications from the
start, Baird emphasizes, "ethicists and other scholars need
to understand what's possible in the lab. " Most important,
he says, "students who are trained now in the right
interdisciplinary setting--one where technical experts can
work with people from fields such as law, journalism,
medicine, the humanities, social science, or even science
fiction and art--will become a cadre of scientists, engineers
and scholars who are used to thinking about the societal and
technical problems side-by-side.
Meanwhile, the second grant will go to the University of
California, Los Angeles, where sociologist Lynne Zucker and
her colleagues will study how newly acquired knowledge about
nanotechnology makes its way from the laboratory to the
marketplace. This is not something that happens
automatically, says Zucker, and many startup companies fail
because it's not done well. "As new discoveries are made,"
she explains, "it's very hard for companies to use what's
been learned unless they have access to the scientists'
tacit knowledge--the stuff that you can't write down in a
textbook because you aren't even sure of the concepts yet,
and don't have agreed-upon labels for things."
Thus, says Zucker, one of the major products of the UCLA
study will be an extensive database on small startup firms
in the nanotechnology arena, and what factors influence how
well ideas succeed in the marketplace. "It will be a
resource for scientists, journalists, policymakers--everyone,"
she says. "It will help us understand how the knowledge is
transmitted, what facilitates that transfer, what blocks it, and
what works well."
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent
federal agency that supports fundamental research and
education across all fields of science and engineering, with
an annual budget of nearly $5.3 billion. NSF funds research
all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 universities
and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 30,000
competitive requests for funding, and makes about 10,000 new
funding awards. The NSF also awards over $200 million in
professional and service contracts yearly.
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