New Kind of Engineering Research Center

Several years ago, NSF sponsored an Engineering Research Center (ERC) that combined bioengineering and educational technology. Why not also sponsor an ERC that combines research and teaching on the societal implications of nanotechnology? Parts of this center could be distributed, but it should include one or more nanotechnology laboratories that are willing to take their fundamental science and apply it in directions identified as particularly beneficial by collaborating social scientists and practical ethicists. The goal would be "to infuse technological development with deeper, more thoughtful and wide-ranging discussions of the social purposes of nanotechnology...putting socially beneficial technologies at the top of the research list" (Nardi 2001, 318-19). Deliberations and results should be shared openly, creating an atmosphere of transparency (Weil 2001).

This center could combine graduate students in science and engineering with those trained in social sciences and ethics, thus forming a "living bridge" connecting experts from a variety of disciplines. Some graduate students could even receive training that combines engineering, ethics, and social sciences, as we do in a graduate program at the University of Virginia (Gorman, Hertz, et al. 2000).

The center should hold annual workshops bringing other ERCs and other kinds of research centers involved with nanotechnology together with applied ethicists and social scientists. There should be a strong educational outreach program designed to encourage students concerned with making the world a better place to consider careers in nanotechnology. Hopefully, the end-result would be a model for creating trading zones that encourage true technological progress.

This kind of a center need not be limited to nanotechnology. What about a science and technology center on the theme of converging nano, bio, info and cogno (NBIC) technologies directed towards maximum social benefit? One example of a potential NBIC product is of a smart agent able to look up the price and availability of a particular item and identify the store where it can be found while a consumer walks through the mall. This kind of technology has no benefits for the millions all over the world who are dying of AIDS, suffering from malnutrition, and/or being oppressed by dictators.

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