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  1. 1. Nanoethics (2010) 4:221–228DOI 10.1007/s11569-010-0100-0 ORIGINAL PAPERProposed Strategies for Teaching Ethics of NanotechnologyNael Barakat & Heidi JiaoReceived: 29 January 2010 / Accepted: 27 August 2010 / Published online: 9 September 2010# Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010Abstract Nanotechnology and nanosciences have engineering codes of ethics. The paper is neither a newrecently gained tremendous attention and funding, from philosophical view about ethics of nanotechnology normultiple entities and directions. In the last 10 years the a discussion of the ethical dimensions of nanotech-funding for nanotechnology research has increased by nology. This is an attempt to help educators andorders of magnitude. An important part that has also professionals by answering the question of how togained parallel attention is the societal and ethical incorporate ethics of nanotechnology in the educationalimpact of nanotechnology and the possible consequen- process and practice of engineering and what is criticalces of its products and processes on human life and for the students and professionals to know in thatwelfare. Multiple thinkers and philosophers wrote regard. The contents of the presented strategies andabout both negative and positive effects of nanotech- ideas focus on the practical aspects of ethical issuesnology on humans and societies. The literature has a related to nanotechnology and its societal impact. It alsoconsiderable amount of views about nanotechnology builds a relation between these issues and engineeringthat range from calling for the abandonment and codes of ethics. The pedagogical components of theblockage of all efforts in that direction to complete strategies are based on best-practices to producesupport and encouragement in hopes that nanotech- independent life-long self-learners and critical thinkers.nology will be the next big jump in ameliorating human These strategies and ideas can be incorporated as alife and welfare. However, amidst all this hype about whole or in part, in the engineering curriculum, to raisethe ethics of nanotechnology, relatively less efforts and awareness of the ethical issues related to nanotech-resources can be found in the literature to help nology, improve the level of professionalism amongengineering professionals and educators, and to provide engineering graduates, and apply ABET criteria. It canpractical methods and techniques for teaching ethics of also be used in the way of professional developmentnanotechnology and relating the technical side of it to and continuing education courses to benefit professionalthe societal and human aspect. The purpose of this engineers. Educators and institutions are welcome topaper is to introduce strategies and ideas for teaching use these strategies, a modified version, or even a furtherethics of nanotechnology in engineering in relation to developed version of it, that suits their needs and circumstances.N. Barakat (*) : H. JiaoSchool of Engineering, Grand Valley State University, Keywords Nanotechnology ethics education .301 W Fulton St. KEN 136,Grand Rapids, MI 49546, USA Nanotechnology education pedagogies . Practical ethicse-mail: education
  2. 2. 222 Nanoethics (2010) 4:221–228Introduction public, the decision makers, and fellow professionals. These knowledgeable individuals are citizens withAdvances in nanotechnology and related nanosciences special expertise creating a specific responsibility [6].are now beyond the laboratory development phase [1]. Philosophers and researchers have established thatProducts and devices based on nanotechnology have nanotechnology is a multi disciplinary field and thatalready hit the market and reached the hands of the direction it serves dictates the issues. There areconsumers [2]. In the US, the 25 agencies, including common ethical issues with nanotechnology like theNSF, comprising the National Nanotechnology Initia- question of nano-divide in society. However, specifictive have spent almost $1.4 billion on nanotechnology issues will become eminent depending on the direc-in FY 2007 and nearly $1.5 billion for FY 2008 [3]. tion and field that nanotechnology serves. SpecificMany future developments and technologies are still ethical issues related to applications in military areanticipated or promised based on nanotechnology. somewhat different from those related to applicationsConsequently, the efforts are now directed towards affecting the environment or the human body. Somebuilding a critically-needed national knowledge base thinkers went even as far as suggesting differentand a trained workforce to achieve a global competitive societal impacts, depending on cultural differences,edge [4]. One of the positive aspects about these which dictate a mixture of linguistic and ideologicalefforts and activities is that funding agencies and definitions of certain terms used for identifyingresearchers have called for the inclusion of ethical and nanotechnology, and therefore perceptions [7]. More-societal impacts of nanotechnology at an early stage over, multiple publications can be found in the[4–6]. The lessons learned from previous experiences literature discussing nanotechnology ethics as beingwith technology and its ethical and societal impact the same as bioethics since nanotechnology is deeplyhave been sobering. Examples of those include the utilized in improving the instruments of the healthcase of asbestos effects on health, where actual industry and pharmaceutical products [8]. Neverthe-technologically inflected harm on the public has less, professional engineers and engineering studentsoccurred, and the case of Genetically Modified need to learn and utilize the practical ethics related toOrganisms (GMOs) in Europe, where poor public nanotechnology in any context. Therefore, a need forknowledge have resulted in public rejection of a creativity and effort in this area is necessary topromising technology. As a result, it is now an provide engineers with the full picture of nanotech-international goal that humanities and social sciences nology including its human and societal dimensions atbecome integrated in emerging and interdisciplinary an early stage, not after the fact. For ethics to be partfields, of which nanotechnology is one. Funding and of the process or product and to be part of everydaycontrolling agencies of nanotechnology activities, like practice of the profession it has to be brought inthe NSF and the EC, are taking the position of simultaneously with the technical concepts. Being anencouraging and even requesting engagement of the ad hoc topic or a reparation service for damages, afterpublic in any proposed technological development or the fact, or for a design after the critical decisionsdiscovery, through the integration of the societal and have been made will strip ethics from any possibleethical dimension [4, 6]. Public engagement aims at added value.creating debate by increasing transparency to gain This paper includes some suggested strategies topublic trust. The ultimate goal is to achieve public help engineering educators and professionals integratecorrect education, which leads to informed decisions. nanotechnology ethics in the curriculum as well as inBy properly presenting the facts to the public, on the continuous professional development plans. In addi-one hand, less room is left for mythical and imaginary tion, some practical techniques for implementingfears and hopes of nanotechnology, and more chances these strategies and integrating nanotechnology ethicsare given to realities and tolerance by the public. On in the curriculum are proposed. These ideas andthe other hand, expectations about the capabilities of experiences will be implemented in the nanotechnol-nanotechnology are tamed to reality and practicality. ogy courses being established as part of the engineer-Therefore, knowledgeable individuals involved in ing curriculum at Grand Valley State Universitynanotechnology, especially professionals, have a duty (GVSU). This work is part of a project supported byto participate in ethical discussions and inform the NSF grant to integrate nanotechnology into the
  3. 3. Nanoethics (2010) 4:221–228 223undergraduate engineering curriculum, awarded to the 2. Life-quality ethics (Justice and equality ethics):authors. The paper starts by summarizing the main This includes ideas like the nano-divide where theethical issues related to nanotechnology and mapping gap between rich and poor nations will increase.them to relevant ethical concepts and code pieces in 3. Life and human definition ethics: This includesthe American Society of Mechanical Engineers the concept of integrity as a human and issues(ASME-International) code of ethics. ASME code of related to human change.ethics was chosen as a representative code for anyprofessional engineering organization code of ethics. As was mentioned above, some of these issues areThis is followed by suggested strategies and techniques realistic and some are fears which can sometimes beto teach ethics of nanotechnology to engineering unfounded. Therefore, it is not possible for engineers tostudents or incorporate it in engineers’ continuous take into consideration all of these issues and integrateprofessional development plans. It is to be noted here them in their profession. Realistic societal impacts andthat the goals of the strategies have some abstract ethical concerns, especially those influencing an engi-elements to them to allow as much freedom as possible neering decision or practice, or those founded on solidfor the implementing agency or instructor to tailor the scientific evidence, should be considered withoutgoals to the application of nanotechnology at hand. hesitation. An appropriate method to screen ethical issues and decide which ones should be considered by engineers and engineering educators is to follow theEthical Issues in Nanotechnology lead of an engineering code of ethics. Codes of ethics provide a frame for dealing with ethical issues that faceNanotechnology aims at improving human life and the engineering professionals as well as a focus forwelfare and achieving broader societal visions of an debate on professional ethics evolution. Included, inupgraded life and healthcare, improved productivity, Table 1, is a mapping between nanotechnology ethicsand better understanding of nature. Philosophy and and societal impact and the code of ethics of theethics allow for a broader level of questions to be ASME – international as a starting point [10 andincluded alongside the technical inquiry of nanotech- Appendix A]. Ethical and societal issues related tonology like its effect on humanity and good life. nanotechnology that are repeated in the literature areHowever, this might lead to one or both of risk also mapped to the appropriate category from theexaggeration, and promise over-expectations, about abovementioned list, as well as the relevant influencenanotechnology, which are usually proportional to the they could have on engineering practices and deci-lack of factual knowledge associated with the tech- sions. As the table shows, a set of ethical issues relatednology. Moreover, the fact that nanotechnology is to nanotechnology, which are discussed in the litera-multidisciplinary in nature produces a variety of ture, are covered by the general cannons of the code ofethical and societal impacts that add a lot to the ethics. These issues would directly influence anmixture. The literature has plenty of related ethical engineering decision in the product, process, orissues discussed in depth and breadth. These issues practice. However, the table also includes another setand thoughts range from being imaginary and based of issues which are not covered by the codes of ethics.on science fiction, without any scientific proofs or This set includes issues which are either evolutionary,evidence, to real tangible issues that have been requiring a thorough discussion and a decision forreported and are being experienced [9]. Ethical issues consideration in the codes of ethics, or based onand societal impact of nanotechnology are usually suppositions and possibilities which either requiredivided between three different categories as follows: further evidence and proofs, or depend on an unknown possible destiny of a product or technology, to be1. Life-basics ethics (Risk and “first do no harm” considered. ethics). This includes concepts like autonomy. The exposure of engineers and students to all Examples of issues under this category include possible ethical issues related to nanotechnology is military applications, fear of uncontrolled actions recommended. However, there has to be a careful (e.g. run-away reactions and uncontrolled self distinction between what engineers and engineering replications), and health hazards. students are required to do regarding these issues, and
  4. 4. 224 Nanoethics (2010) 4:221–228Table 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 processEthical issue/Question Category Relevant ASME code of Effect on the engineering process, product, or practice from above ethics [Appendix A]Sustainability 1 Cannon 8 Resources used, material selection, product life cycle, recyclingEnvironment 1 Cannon 8 Resources used, material selection, product life cycle, recyclingSafety standards 1 Cannon 1 Product and process design and executionPrivacy, consent 1 Cannon 4 & 5 Engineering practiceHuman enhancement 3 Cannon 1 Safety in every stepObjectivity 1 Cannon 2 & 7 Honor, integrityDo no harm 1 Cannon 1 Safety in every stepEquality 2 Cannon 1 Resources accommodationMilitary application 1 N/A UnknownMisuse and exploitation 1 N/A UnknownGrey Goo fears 1 N/A UnknownContinuous monitoring 1 N/A UnknownNano-divide and distribution 2 N/A Unknownwhat they are supposed to just be aware of until ing are three main suggested strategies on how to goproven to be realistic, or thoroughly discussed by about this topic:professionals within their organizations for a conclu-sion. Issues should not be labeled according to ethical 1. Teaching ethics is not about teaching right andcorrectness, especially when they are speculative or wrong. It is about producing morally autonomousprecautionary. The idea is to create awareness and engineers. The idea should always be to makesensitivity and include ethical and societal issues at engineers morally sensitive and equipped tothe early stages of nanotechnology (or new tech- detect and handle any ethical situation that theynology) endeavors by utilizing proven rules, which might face in their profession. In addition, ethicswill mitigate the risks. These rules can be derived should be taught similar to engineering technicalfrom existing engineering codes of ethics or similar knowledge. Students should be taught how tosources. 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 notStrategies to Teach Ethics of Nanotechnology be given fish. Codes of ethics of any engineering professional organization are adequate and avail-Nanotechnology provides a new context for a different able tools for quick reference. However, themixture of ethics from different technological bases and knowledge should be about their essence andexperiences. Whenever technology evolves, a new how to apply these codes, not about memorizingcontext is produced and a different set of ethical them or applying them blindly. They are areflections emerges, in addition to concerns that have framework not a final solution or recipe.always paralleled technology innovation like sustain- 2. Nanotechnology still has many of its parts in theability, risk assessment, and interaction with human early stages. Therefore, sufficiently relevant in-beings. Therefore, it is critical that as engineering formation and knowledge to properly assess thestudents are taught about ethics and the societal impact ethical impact of many parts of nanotechnologyof nanotechnology, they are being equipped with tools and their use is not available yet. A lot of whatto face any possible new scenario successfully. Follow- has been proposed in the literature is speculative
  5. 5. Nanoethics (2010) 4:221–228 225 or comparative to historical events and lessons the resources. Nevertheless, the minimum amount learned from the events and experiences of a of this element for engineers to know should previous technology (e.g. biotechnology). Proac- include the essence of professional codes of ethics tive discussions and precautionary measures are and how to apply it or project it on the different always encouraged and useful. However, that is situation and activities they could encounter during always associated with the risk of creating unjus- practicing engineering. tified societal and psychological limits which can 2. Nanotechnology specific ethics: These include the be translated into real legal and political barriers ethical issues and societal impacts which are leading to rejection by the public. This rejection spread over the literature as well as any that come might end up being based on false fears and up during professional activities in the area of misinformed interpretations associated with the nanotechnology. The most appropriate place for precautionary and proactive issues raised. For this element is within a course of nanotechnology, these reasons, scientists and engineers involved but that is not a limitation to integrating this in nanotechnology have a duty to take part in element in a general engineering ethics course. ethical discussions within both the professional However, the strategies mentioned above should and the political contexts. When taking part in the be considered when building a module to handle discussion, these professionals have to be fully this element. Not every issue in the literature is a informed, objective, and honest in their statements. possible candidate for engineers to worry about.3. Ethical consideration should be integrated in 3. Ethics applications in nanotechnology products engineering endeavors as design constraints or and processes: These include possible areas of functional requirements at a very early stage. This application where ethics and societal impacts of will guarantee an effective influence of ethics on nanotechnology might influence a crucial decision the critical decision and directions of endeavor. or a direction in an engineering activity. Examples However, it should not bind resources or jeopardize of these areas include material selection and safety development, which requires a reasonable balance rules in design and processing. This element is the to be found. Risk-benefit analysis techniques come most challenging for educators to support and in handy in such situations. implement because it changes the fundamental and traditional way synthesis and analysis are done in engineering and imposes extra constraints thatProposed Techniques and Practices to Teach might look as if barring progress. It also requiresNanotechnology Ethics creativity and finding middle ground solutions to conflicting constraints, which is not always anIntegrating ethics of nanotechnology into the engi- obvious choice. Embedding this element in engi-neering curriculum can be done in a variety of ways, neering activities and making it part of the practicedepending on the available resources and existing is the most effective way to achieve the first cannoninfrastructure for ethics teaching, as long as the of any engineering code of ethics [10].strategies listed above are taken into consideration.There are three elements that need to be covered in Following are some techniques that could beorder for the engineer to gain a structured and effective proposed here to cover these elements by engineerseducation and awareness of ethics and the societal working in the area of nanotechnology. These are notimpact of nanotechnology. These elements are: the only available techniques but a set that is based on a successful experience in teaching engineering ethics1. Ethics bases and concepts: These include the and societal impacts of engineering activities. The origins and frames governing professional and sequence of the three abovementioned elements has to practical ethics as opposed to general theories of be included to provide a full picture of the topic. Before ethics. Included also are codes of ethics and exploring the techniques, the location of the above three engineers responsibility as well as concepts of elements in the curriculum can be as follows: The first societal impact and good works. This particular element can be covered in a general course of element can be reduced and increased depending on engineering ethics or even in general-education ethics.
  6. 6. 226 Nanoethics (2010) 4:221–228This element provides a background and context for the extensive timely tests and even measures to reversestudent to understand the roots of the ethical issues and collect nanoparticles in the case of a problem.being posed. The second element is most appropriately This is part of the code they learned and they arecovered if included within the nanotechnology course or applying it systematically.activity. Many teaching techniques can be used in this Another technique is to attach the ethical question aspart, including case studies and guest speakers. How- a tag question to every step in a design of experiment orever, as was previously pointed out, not every issue in lab procedure. By asking if the step taken has anythe literature will have an impact on the engineering impact on human health, safety, the environment, oractivity. Ethical considerations which are proven or sustainability concepts, consideration of the ethicalbased on a reliable source, like the code of ethics from dimension becomes an introspective process built inan engineering organization, are the most appropriate to the engineering activity. An appropriate series ofstart with. The third element is where challenges lie. questions that can be posed at every step could be:This element depends on many factors including the what could possibly go wrong with this step? Whatawareness of the educator and resources availability like would the impact be on humans, the environment, andtime, among others. By covering this element, ethical the society at large? What is the solution? How can theissues can be spread throughout the curriculum and re- danger be mitigated? The same set of questions can beemphasized many times. Some techniques to cover this integrated as an essential constraint when performingelement can be imported from best-practices previous synthesis or analysis. If these questions are brought upsuccessful experiences in teaching engineering ethics, in every design review or guided exercise as anwith some extrapolation. interactive discussion that would be another ideal The first technique capitalizes on engineers’ training scenario to bring engineers’ attention to the ethicalto detect patterns and comfortably deal with numbers dimension of their work.and formulae. Codifying nanotechnology ethics by One last remark is that on the one hand, lower levelrelating them to corresponding cannons in codes of engineering students (freshman and sophomore) areethics then projecting these coded concepts on situa- more comfortable and accepting to the debate andtions and decisions will make integrating ethics in the top-down (reductionist) classical models whenengineering activity a natural process. It becomes like instructing ethics. This is due to, mainly, their limitedanother formula to use and apply. Systematic and professional and technical experience which dictates acontinuous projection of these coded concepts every limited professional ethics experience and requires atime there is a possible question on ethics or societal lot of background information to be provided to buildimpact upgrades the exercise to a solid habit. Even if a context. On the other hand, upper level engineeringethics is just “another formula,” although the hope is students and practicing engineers can use the previousthat it is more than that, this way it is guaranteed to be method or can opt to using case studies and researchincluded from the beginning. As a simplified example, of selected cases to illustrate both the positive and thetake for instance the issue of protecting the environ- negative sides of ethical issues in nanotechnology. Inment. Nanoparticles effect on the environment might either case, case studies are definitely a good techniquenot be known. This raises an ethical issue that would especially if they are not quite easy to judge and requirecorrespond to cannon 8 of the ASME code of ethics debate.[10]. Cannon 8 states that: “Engineers shall considerenvironmental impact and sustainable development inthe performance of their professional duties.” Associ- Conclusionated interpretations and expansions of the cannonwould be used for a better understanding and Nanotechnology products have now reached the handsapplication, but the main idea is provided by the of consumers simultaneously with a slew of ethicalstatement of the cannon. Now that the issue is coded, issues and concerns for its broader societal impact.engineers faced with a decision related to utilizing These ethical issues range from realistic to fictitious andnanoparticles on a wide scale (outside controlled differ by the different areas where nanotechnology isenvironment) would take extra measures to ensure being applied, due to the multidisciplinary nature ofthat cannon 8 is not opposed or broken. That means nanotechnology. However, practical ethics of nanotech-
  7. 7. Nanoethics (2010) 4:221–228 227nology for engineers and engineering educators to apply 2. Engineers shall perform services only in theare still in the development phase. Creative efforts are areas of their competence; they shall build theirrequired in the area of practical nanotechnology ethics professional reputation on the merit of theirfor engineers to move in parallel with engineering services and shall not compete unfairly witheducation and practice and become an effective element critical and decisive stages of the engineering 3. Engineers shall continue their professional devel-endeavor. opment throughout their careers and shall provide Ethical issues related to nanotechnology are plenty. opportunities for the professional and ethicalThe subset of these issues that relates to engineering development of those engineers under theirpractice can be integrated in the engineering curriculum supervision.or the plan for continuous professional development 4. Engineers shall act in professional matters forusing many techniques. To achieve this goal, some each employer or client as faithful agents orsuggested practical strategies as well as practical trustees, and shall avoid conflicts of interest ortechniques for implementation have been proposed. the appearance of conflicts of interest.These techniques are based on successful best-practices 5. Engineers shall respect the proprietary informa-and experiences which have been implemented in tion and intellectual property rights of others,teaching ethics before. Extrapolation and creative including charitable organizations and profes-derivation from these techniques will result in a variety sional societies in the engineering field.of methods to integrate nanotechnology ethics in 6. Engineers shall associate only with reputableengineering. It is vitally important that ethics become persons or essential part of any nanotechnology engineering 7. Engineers shall issue public statements only in anproduct or process. However, it is equally important to objective and truthful manner and shall avoid anycarefully include relevant ethical issues and not be conduct which brings discredit upon the profession.distracted by unfounded or speculative issues. 8. Engineers shall consider environmental impact and sustainable development in the performanceAcknowledgment This work was partially suported by NSF of their professional duties.through Grant number NUE 09-533. 9. Engineers shall not seek ethical sanction against another engineer unless there is good reason to do so under the relevant codes, policies and proce-Appendix A: Code of Ethics of Engineers [10] dures governing that engineer’s ethical conduct. 10. Engineers who are members of the Society shallThe Fundamental Principles endeavor to abide by the Constitution, By-Laws and Policies of the Society, and they shallEngineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor disclose knowledge of any matter involvingand dignity of the engineering profession by: another member’s alleged violation of this CodeI. using their knowledge and skill for the enhance- of Ethics or the Society’s Conflicts of Interest ment of human welfare; Policy in a prompt, complete and truthfulII. being honest and impartial, and serving with fidelity manner to the chair of the Committee on Ethical their clients (including their employers) and the Standards and Review. public; andIII. striving to increase the competence and prestige of the engineering profession. ReferencesThe Fundamental Canons 1. Special Report: 10 Emerging Technologies, http://www., (Accessed Nov. 1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, 2009) health and welfare of the public in the perfor- 2. Nanotechnology, mance of their professional duties. SpecialTopics/Nanotechnology, (Accessed Nov. 2009)
  8. 8. 228 Nanoethics (2010) 4:221–228 3. Davies JC (2007) PEN 9: EPA and nanotechnology: 8. Spagnolo A, Dalosio V (2009) Outlining ethical issues in oversight for the 21st Century, May nanotechnologies. Bioethics 23(7):394–402 4. National Nanotechnology Initiative, 9. Hoover E et al (2009) Teaching small and thinking large: html/society/Education.html, (Accessed Nov. 2009) effects of including social and ethical implications in an 5. Colvin V (2003) The potential environmental impact of interdisciplinary nanotechnology course. J Nano Educ engineered nanomaterials. Nat Biotechnol 21(10):1166–1169 1:86–95 6. Ebbesen et al (2006) Ethics in nanotechnology: starting 10. American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME— from scratch. Bull Sci Tech Soc 26(6):451–462 International) ASME code of ethics, 7. Schummer J (2006) Cultural diversity in nanotechnology Education/PreCollege/TeacherResources/Code_Ethics_ ethics. Interdiscipl Sci Rev 31(3):217–230 Engineers.cfm, (Accessed Nov. 2009). See also Appendix A
  9. 9. Copyright of NanoEthics is the property of Springer Science & Business Media B.V. and its content may not becopied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holders express writtenpermission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.