Morality reduced to nano level


A new book explores how small particles are bombarding the big ethical issues, writes CLAIRE O’CONNELL

NANOWEEK STARTS on Monday and promises several days of events to highlight the potential that nanoscience offers to the Irish economy and society in general.

At the “nano” level – where particles have at least one dimension of less than 100 nanometres – materials can often behave differently than their bulk counterparts, opening up new opportunities for improving medicine, electronics and a swathe of consumer products. But it also presents a need to monitor safety closely.

With such a disruptive technology, it’s hardly surprising that ethical questions arise, and they are engagingly discussed in a new book, Nanoethics – Big Ethical Issues with Small Technologyby Dr Dónal O’Mathúna.

“We have literally a small technology in our hands and we have a lot of human decisions about where we are going to take this. Where we need to focus our attention now is in these areas – and they are not unique to nanotechnology; they are getting back at those value systems that are driving all our social development,” says O’Mathúna, a senior lecturer in ethics, decision-making and evidence at Dublin City University. “There’s a huge amount of funding and investment and academic and industrial interest in the area, yet very low attention and general awareness on the public’s level of what is happening here.”

Some of that public perception can be driven by science fiction – such as nanorobots flowing through your veins no less – and O’Mathúna believes we need to be careful when using fictionalised scenarios. “Where I think science fiction in general does a good job is if it causes us to think back into today, so let’s use the future to wonder about where we might end up and why. But what we need to reflect on is not so much do we have these little nanorobots floating around right now, but what are the values and the reasons that any society might want to go down that direction and what are the concerns we might have,” he says.

“Issues like greed and arrogance and pride and privacy, wanting to do good for one another – they are all coming back to values and ethical principles that are relevant to the decisions that we have to make today. And so long as science fiction is used to cause us to wonder about that and not to get scared that there’s a swarm of nanobees waiting to gobble us all up, then I think it serves a purpose.”

O’Mathúna’s book cites nano-enabled products already available including self-cleaning glass, odourless socks, anti-ageing face cream and stain-resistant fabric. Predictions for nano applications over the coming decade include improved personalised genome sequencing, medical imaging and computers. While useful, are they really going to have an impact on the energy crisis or the developing world?

“That’s one of my broad concerns with all of this – what are we going to guide this technology into? Are we going to focus on things that will really solve some of the big needs of the world or give ourselves new nanotoys?” asks O’Mathúna.

He sees particular areas like water purification and drug delivery as potentially useful, all the while ensuring the developing world benefits, and taking care not to be too mesmerised by the high-tech nano approach where a more effective alternative exists.

And as more nano-enabled products are developed, O’Mathúna argues the need for prioritising caution. “I think realistically we are in a new area. We have had 100 years of knowing fairly well how chemicals work and building on what we know about testing when we put them in the body. Now we are entering into a phase where those methods are not going to work for these particles . . .

“When you are dealing with a new level of uncertainty, you have got to have a new level of emphasis on caution and making sure that we do test these new particles, devices and substances in ways that we know really work.”

Major funders of nanoscience and nanotechnology like the EU and US are paying growing attention to ethical and safety aspects, says O’Mathúna. And, far from being Luddite, asking questions about the rights and wrongs is an important contribution to the field.

“I think that we have a remarkable example of human ingenuity that has the potential to do an awful lot of good or possibly a lot of harm or even wasting time,” he says. “And all along the way there are going to be decisions based on our ethical priorities and those go into where the Government decides to put its money, where scientists decide to focus their energies and where companies decide to develop and market their products.”

Nanoethics – Big Ethical Issues with Small Technologyby Dr Dónal O’Mathúna is published on Continuum Books