Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Oh the Humanities!

Is the study of ethics the new nano gold rush?

When the National Science Foundation announced two grants late last month to ponder nanotech's impact on society, I turned to Chris MacDonald for some 5-cent philosophical help. Chris is a philosopher and ethicist at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I suppose a great deal of time spent trudging through the tundra would turn anyone's contemplations to the ultimate good or evil inherent in tiny particles that have the potential to self-assemble into a giant mess.

The cold has thankfully not kept Chris' brain in a state of cryonic stasis. He has an insightful collection of nanotech ethics articles on his ethicsweb site.

Not wanting to risk any unethical editing, I decided to post an unfiltered look at what Chris had to say about the topic in an e-mail exchange.

Chris: Seems odd that they’ve chosen to give out just 2 grants, grants that are HUGE by the standards of research in the humanities & social scientists. NSF may be under the misapprehension that ethics/social implications is like the genome project. Unfortunately, I doubt that 2 big, individual research projects will make as much progress as 20 smaller ones would have. Projects on ethics work by generating discussion, which you can’t do with just 2 grantees. Oh, well…I guess it’s better than not funding ANYTHING.

Me: Yes, we were discussing something similar at the office here. There's a perception that the business community - especially in chemicals – sees that there is government money to be had if only they redefine what they do as "nano." The more cynical among us are wondering whether philosophy and social sciences departments in colleges and universities across the country are now putting together their own panels to study the societal and ethical issues associated with nanotechnology in the hopes of government funding. Is that where the money is in your field?

Chris: Up til now, the money’s been in biotech/genetics. Philosophers & others in the social sciences have been handed multi-million dollar grants (and smaller ones, too, of course) to look at social, ethical, & legal implications of biotech. And yes, I suspect that now that nano is coming to the fore, at least some people in ethics etc. will shift their research in that direction in hopes of finding funding. But there’s also a less cynical angle: you go where the funding is, because that’s (often) where the action is; that’s where interesting, cutting-edge stuff is happening. Nano is an interesting & important topic, independent of whether it’s getting funded. But it doesn’t hurt to know that one’s newest interest happens to be attracting funding…"


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