Almost all of the NSF-funded nanoscale science and engineering centers have a component that reaches out to children in grades K-12. However, the NNI could develop a much more coherent program for K-12 outreach and education. These activities should include programs to introduce K-12 science and math teachers to nanoscale science and technology.

SOCIETAL IMPLICATIONS AND THE NATIONAL NANOTECHNOLOGY INITIATIVE

The fifth NNI funding theme deals with the social implications of nanoscale science and technology, including education and training issues, and provides a mechanism for using social science methods to gain a better understanding of the social processes that might affect or be affected by nanoscale science and technology. The committee was charged with assessing whether “NNI gives sufficient consideration to the societal impact of developments in nanotechnology.”

On balance, the rationales for addressing societal implications within NNI seem particularly compelling:6

The development of radically new nanotechnologies will challenge how we educate our scientists and engineers, prepare our workforce, and plan and manage R&D. As other parts of this report have pointed out, the ability of the United States to produce the scientific and technical breakthroughs needed for a nanorevolution will require significant changes in the country’s R&D system. Many, if not most, of the really important scientific breakthroughs in nanoscale science and technology and supporting areas will occur at the intersection of different disciplines and fields, and some may result in the creation of new disciplines. This will require truly interdisciplinary collaborations between fields like biology and physics at a scale and intensity that may be unprecedented. It will also require significant changes to the curricula and training experiences offered to our undergraduate and graduate students, to the preparation received in K-12, and to the way we train our workforce. In addition, timely and successful commercialization of the breakthroughs that come from our scientific work will require effective, ongoing communication and collaboration between the public and private sectors. As a consequence, the nation needs to develop education-, training-, and partnership-based initiatives to meet these challenges.

The social and economic consequences of nanoscale science and technology promise to be diverse, difficult to anticipate, and sometimes disruptive. The title of the IWGN report National Nanotechnology Initiative: Leading to the Next Industrial Revolution reveals many of the expectations the United States has for nanoscale science and technology. However, if the nanorevolution lives up to the hype comparing it to the industrial revolution, it will also transform and perturb labor and the workplace, introduce new worker safety issues, affect the distribution of wealth within and between nations, and change a variety of social institutions, including our medical system and the military. While these kinds of transformations occurred with other technological advances and were managed reasonably well, there are reasons to believe the trans-formation propagated by a nanorevolution may be particularly challenging. Nanoscale science and technology are likely to affect and transform multiple industries and affect significant numbers of workers and parts of the economy. “Technological accelera-tion,” the increasing rate of discovery in some disciplines, most notably biology, and the synergy provided by improvements in information and computing technologies have the potential to compress the time from discovery to full deployment for nanoscale science and technology, thereby shortening the time society has to adjust to these changes.7 Speculation about unintended consequences of nanotechnology, some of it informed but a lot of it wildly uninformed, has already captured the imagination and, to some extent, the fear of the general public.

Some technologists, such as those in the nuclear power and genetically modified foods industries, have ignored these kinds of challenges and suffered the consequences. Others, most notably those in the molecular biology community, have attempted to address the issues and to use their understanding to stimulate an informed and objective dialogue about the choices that can be made and the directions taken.

Nanoscale science and technology provides a unique opportunity for developing a fuller understand-

6  

In preparing this section the committee drew heavily on material included in the recent NSET-sponsored workshop “Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology,” September 2000.

7  

Newt Gingrich, presentation at the NSET-sponsored workshop “Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology,” September 29, 2000.



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