February 13, 2006
Comparing Nanotechnology and Genetically
Modified Organisms Misleads Public
Many of today’s discussions about the social and ethical implications of nanotechnology are framed in the historical context of the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the controversies surrounding their agricultural use. But two faculty members from Northeastern University argue that analogy between the commercial development of GMOs and nanomaterials is weak at best and does little to advance a productive discussion about nanotechnology.
Writing in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, Ronald Sandler, Ph.D., and William Kay, Ph.D., argue that the GMO-nanotechnology analogy overstates the likelihood of a backlash against nanotechnology. The use of this analogy, they note, also creates misconceptions about the reasons for engaging the public in discussions about nanotechnology and conducting research on the social and ethical issues accompanying the widespread commercial development of nanotechnology.
According to Sandler and Kay, comparing the development of nanotechnology to that of GMOs leads to the following conclusions: “The scientific communities and industries involved in nanotechnology must openly confront the social and ethical issue (SEI) dimensions of nanotechnology, which requires public engagement and SEI research, or they run the risk of a costly backlash against nanotechnology.”
But acting on this conclusion, say the authors, will lead to a shallow engagement of the public conducted more to avoid backlash than to truly engage the public and build excitement and support for this new science. This type of shallow engagement with the public also misses an opportunity to explore possible problems and methods to remedy those problems. A more comprehensive discussion would not only inform the use of nanotechnology but lead to the public feeling more involved in setting priorities rather than merely reacting to developments that have already taken place.
This discussion appears in a paper titled, “The GMO-nanotech (dis)analogy?” An abstract is available at the journal’s website.