The Rush to Market, Lack of Knowledge, and Public Trust

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What should rivet our attention now is the rush to get nano products into the market long before the nanoscale phenomena these products exploit are understood. Nanoscale materials often present unusual structures and activities as compared to ordinary-scale amounts of the same material. Research moves relatively slowly to understand how these properties arise and what makes possible the desirable behaviors exhibited. Research into consequences, side effects, and by-products that may not be desirable is just getting off the ground. Yet, seemingly, new nano products get prompt federal regulatory clearance to enter the marketplace.

To illustrate: On December 2, 2005, a company received federal approval to sell catheters coated with a compound of nanoscale silver particles for use in wounds produced by surgery. The company has already begun shipping the devices to companies that welcome an alternative to antibiotics. From antiquity, physicians have known about the antiseptic powers of silver. But it is not yet clear to scientists how the surprisingly low concentrations of silver in these new nano coatings kill so many bacteria, nor is it clear how the remarkable capacity of these coatings to adhere to glass and plastic arises.[1]

The need for more fundamental knowledge is glaring, as is the need for investigation of unwelcome consequences, side effects, and byproducts. Recent studies probing public attitudes toward new nano products indicate that the public counts on companies to test new products adequately before releasing them to the market. And it relies on the federal government to impose regulations as needed to protect the public from new materials and devices that pose unacceptable risks.[2]

The most critical ethical concern at this moment is lack of knowledge, from funda- mental understanding of the structures and behaviors of nano products to knowledge of negative as well as positive features of products in the workplace and marketplace. Workers are the first line of exposure. And we need to know whether there are adequate procedures in small and large companies and in federal regulatory bodies for determining when new products may be released. Right now we do not have the knowledge we need to clarify other ethical issues. But we know that public trust is essential to the viability of new technologies, and involvement of the public in the implementation of nano discoveries is key.

  1. Barnaby J. Feder. "Old Curative Gets New Life at Tiny Scale," The New York Times, December 20, 2005, p. D5
  2. Jane Macoubrie. Informed Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, September 8, 2005, pp. 1–26.


Vivian Weil Vivian Weil is director of the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions and professor of ethics at the Illinois Institute of Technology. She previously served as director of the National Science Foundation's Ethics and Values Studies Program.

Weil concentrates on ethical issues and questions of responsibility in engineering and science. Her publications include overviews of and specific topics in engineering ethics and scientifi c research ethics. Among the specifi c topics are dissemination and sharing of scientifi c and technical information, intellectual property, contracting in engineering and science, university/industry research relationships, ethics in engineering education, mentoring, whistle-blowing, and emerging technologies. The latter include nuclear energy, information technologies, biotechnology, and a current concentration on nanoscience and technology. Weil made presentations about ethics at two NSF conferences on the societal implications of nanoscience and nanotechnology, and she presented at the meeting to launch NSF's National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network call for proposals in January 2003.

She edited Beyond Whistleblowing: Defining Engineers' Responsibilities, co-edited Owning Scientific and Technical Information, and helped with a special issue of Synthese on applied science. For the 2001 volume Trying Times: Science and Responsibilities after Daubert, she edited the papers, annotated the bibliography, and wrote the introduction. Her publications in the nano area include "Ethical Issues in Nanotechnology" in Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Technology (2001), "Zeroing In on Ethical Issues in Nanotechnology" in Proceedings of the IEEE (2003), and "Ethics and Nano: A Survey" in Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Technology (2005).

Weil is a founding member of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, a charter member of the executive committee, and has served as chair of the executive committee since 2002. She is a member of the American Philosophical Association (APA) and has served on a number of APA committees. She served a term as member of the International Council for Science’s Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics in Science, and she is currently serving on a Technical Advisory Group (TAG) on nanotechnology for the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She serves on editorial boards for several journals, including Science and Engineering Ethics. She received an AB and an MA in philosophy from the University of Chicago and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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