STS 200: Societal dimensions of nanotechnology

Rationale & core concepts:
One of the most commendable features of the National Nanotechnology Initiative is repeated calls by major participants for “[t]he early involvement of social scientists, ethicists, humanists, and others in defining the attributes of responsible development of nanotechnology…” (Roco & Bainbridge, 2007), p. 1. (See for the history of the NNI). As Davis Baird noted in testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, May 1, 2003, “Productive work on societal implications needs to be engaged with the research from the start. Ethicists need to go into the lab to understand what's possible. Scientists and engineers need to engage with humanists to start thinking about this aspect of their work. Only thus, working together in dialog, will we make genuine progress on the societal and ethical issues that nanotechnology poses.” Rosalyn Berne, an expert on nanotechnology ethics, emphasizes that “If public policymakers, industry leaders, politicians, venture capitalists, the lay public, and laboratory-based researchers will engage in an open, honest dialogue toward the negotiation and determination of nanotechnology's course of direction, then there is hope for humanitarian ends.” (Berne, 2005), p. 35
On the cutting-edge of technology, trading zones are formed to exchange knowledge and resources across disciplinary and administrative cultures, leading to the development of new technologies like particle detectors and radar (Galison, 1997). To succeed, nanotechnology will not only have to form trading zones involving scientists and engineers but also multiple stakeholder groups in communities like Danville. Gorman and Groves have demonstrated that trading zones in nanotechnology can include social scientists as well as engineers and scientists (Gorman & Groves, 2007; Gorman, Groves, & Catalano, 2004; Gorman, Groves, & Shrager, 2004).
The interactional expert has deep expertise in one nanotechnology domain, but also knows enough of the language and concepts of another domain to facilitate knowledge exchanges (Collins, Evans, & Gorman, 2007). Our educational system is good at developing deep disciplinary expertise, but not interactional expertise (Gorman & Frascella, 2007). Interactional expertise alone cannot bridge the gap between stakeholders who have fundamentally different values. This step requires moral imagination (Werhane, 1999). Simply put, moral imagination begins with the recognition that one's own values contain truths, but so do the values of others, and once all parties in a trading zone recognize that fact, they can work together to imagine and evaluate alternative futures.
Mihail C Roco, one of the architects of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, calls for the application of adaptive management to nanotechnology (Renn & Roco, 2006). In adaptive management, “policies become hypotheses, and management actions become the experiments to test those hypotheses” (Folke, Hahn, Olsson, & Norberg, 2005), p. 447. In order to design experiments and evaluate the results, trading zones will have to be set up among multiple stakeholders.
At the earliest stages of technological development, the risks and benefits are not known or quantifiable, and the law of unexpected consequences rules.
The solution is anticipatory governance: “between adapting to a common revolution and halting development exists an array of government options…Anticipatory governance seeks to lay the intellectual foundation for (any of) these approaches early enough to be effective” (Barben, Fisher, Selin, & Guston, 2007), p. 992. These options will include trading zones that link government institutions with NGOs, scientists and seekers who understand water quality issues in a local context. It is important to emphasize that “these network structures do not replace the accountability of existing hierarchical bureaucracies but operate within and complement them” (Folke et al., 2005), p. 450.


Ideally, students would gain sufficient interactional expertise to facilitate the kinds of trading zones that will ensure development of nanotechnologies which represent social as well as technological progress. Realistically, the acquisition of such expertise is a lifetime project--there is always more to learn. The course, hopefully, will develop both the capability and the desire to engage in this sort of lifelong learning, particularly--but not exclusively--in the area of nanotechnology.

As part of this process, students will gain the ability to exercise moral imagination. One important component of this is metacognition, or awareness of one's own cognitive process. The moral imagination component of metacognition is the recognition that one's values represent a view, grounded in stories that exemplify good and bad behavior. If I know that I have a view, and you know that you have one, then we can get together and try to evolve a better view, one that allows us to manage a rapidly changing set of socio-technical possibilities. If each of us confuses her or his view with reality, there is no possibility for genuine dialogue. Note that moral imagination is not the same as relativism--all views are not equally valid or invalid, and there are positions that are genuinely and deeply immoral.

Essential to this process is the acquisition of better communication skills--writing, speaking and listening. This course contains a wide range of assignments designed to improve these skills, including cross-team as well as within-team communications.


A typical week will include a lecture, either from a member of the instructional team or a guest, accompanied by readings. The class following the lecture will be a discussion of the issues raised. There will also be student presentations of case-studies (see below).

Required Text

Ratner, M., & Ratner, D. (2002) Nanotechnology: A Gentle Introduction to the Next Big Idea. Prentice Hall

Avaliable at:

UVA Book Store:


Societal dimensions readings will be on-line, drawn from the list below (see References)


Readingsand lectures will be noted on Collab schedule, as will the deadlines and deliverables for the assignments below. This schedule may be subject to revision as the semester progresses--be on the alert for announcements.

What follows is the description of the major assignments:

Case Studies
Students will learn to exercise moral imagination by creating case-studies that obligate them to take on the roles case studies that show how technical and social aspects of problems and opportunities are intertwined. Consider, for example, the case of an environmentally-intelligent textile, researched and written at UVA with NSF support (Gorman & Mehalik, 2002; Gorman et al., 2000). An interdisciplinary design team including an architect, a chemist, a fabric designer and the manager of a textile mill worked together to create a biodegradeable furniture fabric that created no waste during its manufacturing process and would be profitable. Students are given information about a range of options available and they have to decide what the team ought to do. To encourage moral imagination, different groups of students role-play key stakeholders and debate which environmental design option to choose-or even whether it makes sense to produce an environmental fabric. Students are given enough information on alternative design paths to make a decision whether to accept or reject any of them.
The case method used here consists of presenting students with information possessed by those who have to make a decision that combines technology and values, then debating the options that emerge from the information and from different perspectives. In the end, the students compare their decision with what the actual practitioners did, and discuss whether the final result is a good model for future decisions.
Gorman's previous case studies include two that have been digitized: Unilever's effort to develop a triple bottom line (, and Monsanto's attempts to develop a strategy to protect its investments in genetically modified organisms ( Students-both graduate and undergraduate--were the primary creators of the case-studies, closely supervised by Gorman and Patricia H. Werhane, Ruffin Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Virginia. None of the existing case studies involves societal dimensions of nanotechnology.
Students in this course willl be invovled in developidn new nanotechnology case-studies. Groups of four or five students will work on each case-study and run the class on a pilot version. The best of the students will be given an opportunity to continue to work on their cases after the class, either for pay or credit. Suggestions for case-studies include:
o The use of tobacco money to promote STEM education and technology development. This case study would describe the policy process by which the tobacco settlement money was used in Virginia to promote new industrial development and STEM education in communities like Danville. Students will debate the ethical and policy implications of using tobacco money for this purpose.
o The prospects for new nanotextiles, building-off Gorman, Mehalik and Werhane's existing DesignTex case (Gorman & Mehalik, 2002; Gorman et al., 2000). Danville was a center of textile manufacturing, and one of the hopes of the community is that nanotechnology will lead to new kinds of textiles that might restore aspects of that business. This case study will explore how nanotechnology might create new kinds of textiles, and what opportunities and problems those would pose for the environment, for workforce training and for applications like security, where new fabrics are being created to enhance soldier survivability (see the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies).
o Carbon trimetaspheres, including the story of how Virginia Tech chemistry professor, Harry Dorn discovered the materials, and Luna took the technology into Danville. This case study will seek to highlight some of the major innovations that resulted from nanoscale research and the pathways to their commercialization. The role of interdisciplinary partnerships, balancing of research needs versus prototyping and manufacturing needs to ensure commercialization, and the impacts of continued collaboration with the original inventors to ensure innovation at all stages of the product development. For instance, the discovery of fullerenes with endohedral clusters ) happened after a physical chemist (Harry Dorn of Virginia Tech), who had acquired expertise in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), spent a sabbatical at IBM studying nanotubes. These combined expertises resulted in the discovery of fullerenes that have tunable magnetic, electronic, and radiological properties. Research is currently underway for their application as multi-modal sensors for biomedical imaging.
o A future convergent technology application, involving nano, bio, info and cognitive technologies. Amartya Sen talks about the relationship between freedom and capabilities (Sen, 1999). A person who is restricted in capabilities by, say, a learning disability, or Alzheimer's, has their freedom restricted as well. Convergent technologies could provide intelligence enhancements that might reduce these capability gaps. Convergent technologies could also provide enhancements that are available only to the rich, thereby increasing capability and freedom gaps. A case study might focus on neural enhancements that could allow direct interfaces between brains and devices, so that paraplegics could control computers, artificial arms, etc. Another possibility is the potential use of a suite of innovations to detect and cure Alzheimer's.
o Improving water quality in the developing world: the recent claim by Colvin and others at Rice's CBEN that nano iron particles can potentially remove two hundred times as much arsenic from drinking water as the same mass of larger materials by existing manufacturers.
o A synthesis study that would look at methods for identifying potential risks associated with technologies developed in the other cases. Is the current regulatory system capable of monitoring these nano and convergent technologies? Will intellectual property concerns fuel or inhibit innovation? How can potential risks and benefits be identified in advance, given the law of unintended consequences? This case would facilitate a cross-case comparison of societal impacts.
Obviously, students may take the cases in different directions than suggested by the short descriptions above, and they will undoubtedly identify new topics. Students will be given an opportunity to publish the best of the case-studies through the Darden School at the University of Virginia.

The course proposed here will culminate in a role-playing simulation of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (Gorman & Groves, 2007). This kind of simulation will allow students to vicariously experience adaptive management and anticipatory governance making decisions about how society's substantial investment in nanotechnology ought to be made, and managing these investments over time. Students are put in groups corresponding to the Congress, funding agencies, companies, research laboratories, NGOs and policy think-tanks. “Nanosim” has been piloted twice in a course for first-year engineering honors students at the University of Virginia. On the most recent occasion, groups corresponded to:
o The House Committee on Science and Technology (which in the simulation is given the power to spend money, not just authorize it)
o Government funding agencies like the NIH , the NSF and DARPA
o A NASA research facility focused on aero and space applications of nanotechnology (e.g., the space elevator)
o A biotech research facility at a University, focusing on nanotechnologies that benefit the environment and human health (Rice's CBEN is a good analogy)
o A security research facility at another University (MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies is a good example)
o A research facility at a major IT company focusing on nanotechnology applications to a wide range of IT services (IBM is a good example)
o A small start-up company making a decision about what area of nanotechnology to go into
o The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center
o ETC group, an NGO that has proposed a moratorium on nanotechnology
o The science pages of a newspaper like the Washington Post, which covers politics as well as technology.

You will keep a log of your group and individual activities, and each of you will write a paper (~10 pages) in which you describe what you did in Nanosim, and reflect on your role.Put your role in context with the rest of your group, describing both how your group worked together and how it interacted with other groups. What was your impression of what they did? What lessons can we learn about how to conduct technology policy from this kind of simulation? (Refer back to readings, guest lectures and class discussion). How could nanosim be improved?

References, including suggestions for further reading:

Barben, D., Fisher, E., Selin, C., & Guston, D. H. (2007). Anticipatory governance of nanotechnology: Foresight, engagement, and integration. In O. A. Edward J. Hackett, Michael Lynch and Judy Wajcman (Ed.), The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (Third ed., pp. 979-1000). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Berne, R. (2005). Nanotalk: Conversations With Scientists and Engineers About Ethics, Meaning, and Belief in the Development of Nanotechnogy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Collins, H., Evans, R., & Gorman, M. (2007). Trading zones and interactional expertise. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 39(1), 657-666.
Freeman, R. (2007). Non-nano effects of nanotechnology on the economy. In M. C. Roco & W. S. Bainbridge (Eds.), Nanotechnology: Societal Implications II Individual Perspectives (pp. 68-74). Dordrecht: Springer.
Folke, C., Hahn, T., Olsson, P., & Norberg, J. (2005). Adaptive governance of social-ecological systems. Annual Review of Environmental Resources, 30, 441-473.
Galison, P. (1997). Image & logic: A material culture of microphysics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Gorman, M. E. (2002). Types of Knowledge and Their Roles in Technology Transfer. The Journal of Technology Transfer, 27(3), 219-231.
Gorman, M. E. (2006). STS, Ethics, and Knowledge Transfer in the
Courtroom. Social Studies of Science, 31(7), 861-866.
Gorman, M. E., & Frascella, W. (2007). Education and human resource development. In M. C. Roco & W. S. Bainbridge (Eds.), Nanotechnology: Societal Implications I:
Maximizing Human Benefit (pp. 112-119). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Gorman, M. E., & Groves, J. (2007). Training students to be interactional experts. In M. C. Roco & W. S. Bainbridge (Eds.), Nanotechnology: Societal Implications II Individual Perspectives (pp. 301-305). Dordrecht: Springer.
Gorman, M. E., Groves, J. F., & Catalano, R. K. (2004). Societal dimensions of nanotechnology. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 29(4), 55-64.
Gorman, M. E., Groves, J. F., & Shrager, J. (2004). Societal Dimensions of Nanotechnology as a
Trading Zone: Results from a Pilot Project. In D. Baird, A. Nordmann & J. Schummer (Eds.), Discovering the Nanoscale (pp. 63-73). Amsterdam: IOS Press.
Gorman, M. E., & Mehalik, M. M. (2002). Turning Good into Gold: A Comparative Study of Two Environmental Invention Networks. Science, Technology & Human Values, 27(4), 499-529.
Gorman, M. E., Mehalik, M. M., & Werhane, P. H. (2000). Ethical and environmental challenges to engineering. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Hawken, P., & McDonough, W. (November, 1993). Seven Steps to Doing Good Business. Inc., 79-92.
Mody. C., (2006). Corporations, universities and instrumental communities: Commercializing probe microscopy. Technology and Culture, 2006, 47, 1, 56-80.
Olds, B. M., & Miller, R. L. (1997). Portfolio assessment: measuring moving targets at an engineering school. NCA Quarterly, 71, 462-467.
Roco, M. C., & Bainbridge, W. S. (Eds.). (2001). Societal Implications of Nanoscience
and Nanotechnology. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. New York: Random House.
Stephan, P. E. (2007). Human resources for nanotechnology. In M. C. Roco & W. S. Bainbridge (Eds.), Nanotechnology: Societal Implications II Individual Perspectives (pp. 331-335). Dordrecht: Springer.
Wardak, A., & Gorman, M. E. (2006). Using trading zones and life cycle analysis to understand nanotechnology regulation. Journal of Law, Medecine and Ethics(Winter), 695-703.
Wardak, A., Gorman, M. E., Swami, N., & Rejeski, D. (2007). Environmental Regulatory Implications for Nanomaterials under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). IEEE Technology & Society.
Wardak, A., Gorman, M. E., & Swami, N. (2006). The Product Life Cycle and Challenges to Nanotechnology Regulation. Nanotechnology law & business, 3(4), 507-519.
Werhane, P. H. (1999). Moral imagination and management decision making. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Zimmerman, J. B., & Vanegas, J. A. (2007). Using Sustainability Education to Enable the Increase of Diversity in Science, Engineering, and Technology Related Disciplines. International Journal of Engineering Education, 12(March), 242-253.