NSF has also sponsored a number of outreach efforts specifically targeted at the general public. These include “Making the Nanoworld Comprehensible,” an exhibit with the University of Wisconsin and Discovery World Science Museum in Milwaukee; “Internships for Creating Presentations on Nanotechnology Topics,” at the Arizona Science Center; and “Small Wonders: Exploring the Vast Potential of Nanoscience,” a traveling education program.

Social Science Research on Societal Implications

While at least one NSEC focuses on an area of great societal concern, the environment, NSF did not support any social science projects focused on nano-related societal implications during FY 2001. According to NSF, some nano-related social science activities were included in several NSEC proposals, but these activities were not at centers judged meritorious enough to warrant funding. Further, very few social science projects were received in the individual investigator and small group competitions, and none were funded. Thus, although NSF explicitly included societal implications in its NNI solicitations, nothing came of those efforts. Given the compelling reasons for including this kind of work within NNI and the strong endorsement activities such as those received from the diverse group of participants attending the NSET-sponsored societal implications workshop, this is a disappointing outcome.

There appear to be a number of reasons for the lack of activity in this area. First and foremost, while a portion of the NNI support was allocated to the various traditional disciplinary directorates, no funding was allocated directly to the Directorate of Social and Behavioral and Economic Sciences, the most capable and logical directorate to lead these efforts. As a consequence, social science work on societal implications could be funded in one of two ways: (1) it could compete directly for funding with physical science and engineering projects through a solicitation that was primarily targeted at that audience or (2) it could be integrated within a nanoscience and engineering center.

There are a number of reasons both funding strategies failed to promote a strong response from the social science community. First, given the differences in goals, knowledge bases, and methodologies, it was probably very difficult for social science group and individual proposals to compete with nanoscience and engineering projects in the NIRT and NER competitions. In addition, while proposals for NIRT and NSEC awards were required to include an educational component and/or a component aimed at the development of a skilled workforce or an informed public, “studies of societal implications” was only one of six optional activities (including international collaboration; shared experimental facilities; systems-level focus; proof-of-concept testbeds; and connection to design and development activities) that individual proposals could include. Not surprisingly, while essentially every proposal included an educational component, and many included familiar practices like testbeds, very few included a social science component.11 Finally, NSEC review committees and site visit teams did not include social scientists.12

Thus, although NSF appears to have made a good faith effort to include social science proposals in its agency-wide solicitation, its internal funding strategy and the way the solicitation was framed probably undermined its attempts to support work in this area.

Evaluation of Activities That Explore Social Implications

Although some progress has been made, particularly with respect to educational initiatives, the amount of attention devoted to societal implications within NNI is disappointing. As one indication that this is the case, the original NNI request budgeted approximately 5.6 percent of its funding to this area. The committee’s best estimate is that for FY 2001 less than half that amount was spent on these activities. While it is merely speculation that this outcome may have been caused by

11  

It is worth noting that the NSEC guidelines did not solicit proposals for centers focused on societal implications. Development of a virtual social science center was one of the major recommendations of the NSET-sponsored workshop on societal implications.

12  

If social science efforts are handled correctly, there is reason to believe they can be integrated within broad-based science and engineering projects or centers. The NSF IUCRC program has included a mandatory social science component for most of the past 20 years. This effort helped the IUCRC program win a Technology Transfer Society Justin Morril Award. In addition, the Center for Environmentally Responsible Solvents and Processes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at the University of Texas at Austin, and at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, an NSF science and technology center, includes a social science research group that addresses collaboration and technology transfer issues. NSF had the wisdom to include social scientists on the review panels for this center.



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