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Nanotechnology – Social, Ethical and Political Endeavour

Note: This is a transcript of two lectures that were part of a lecture series “Nanotechnology” at National Chung Hsing University, Taichung, Taiwan, between September and December 2015. The audience consisted of 1st to 4th year undergraduate students from non-science majors. Therefore, I prepared a simple general introduction to Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies (NT) and focused then on societal aspects, followed by an overview of ethical considerations concerning NT. Some slides that contained animations or overlapping elements are modified to make more sense as static pictures. A few “text-only-slides” were skipped since there is no need to show photos of text that appears in the transcript anyway.


Welcome to today’s lecture! Let me introduce myself first so that you can understand why it is my competence to talk to you here today about this topic: My name is Jan Mehlich, I am from Germany and currently a Postdoctoral researcher at this university. I am a Chemist by training, doing research on a nanotechnological topic. Additionally, I obtained a Master degree in “Applied Ethics” which qualified me for a job in the field of “Technology Assessment”. Since then I don’t “do” Nanoscience, I just “talk about it”. After quitting that job I came to Asia to continue my academic career as a scientist, doing research on “Ethical and Social Implications of Nanotechnology”. At the end of this lecture you will, hopefully, understand better what that is about. But first, let’s see what “Nanotechnology” is and why it matters:


The Greek word “Nanos” means “dwarf”. It was chosen as a prefix for the dimension 10-9. On a length scale, that is at the “very short” end of the scale. In our “human world”, we are used to think in “meters” which is a length we can understand by our body size. A thousand meters, which we give the prefix “kilo”, is still easy to grasp since we can see it with our eyes or can “feel” it when we drive a few kilometers with a car. A million meters (a “megameter”) or even a billion meters (a “gigameter”) can be visualised on maps or graphs but goes towards the limit of our imagination. You just can’t imagine the size of the sun! When you say you can you are overconfident or lie! The same goes for the other direction on the length scale: A millimeter, a thousandth of a meter, is still visible for us. A micrometer is already difficult, and a nanometer is beyond the abilities of the human eye and, therefore, beyond our imagination. One nanometer is the thousandth of a micrometer which is a thousandth of a millimeter. We can get a rough idea about such a length dimension by comparison to something we know. Imagine we fill the planet Earth with footballs of the common size. Approximately 1024 footballs fit into it. This number is unimaginably huge! Now we take a molecule that is 1nm in diameter, a “buckminster-fullerene” (C60), and fill a football with that kind of particle. Again, 1024 “buckyballs” fit into the football. That means, the size ratio of the nanoparticle to the football is the same as that of the football to planet Earth. Another comparison I heard is this: When a seagull sits down on the largest carrier ship of the world, that ship will go 1nm deeper into the water. You can imagine it? Forget it! You can’t!

Two more remarks on the length scale and why it is important for Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies: First, as you might know, the wavelength of visible light (=recognisable by the human eye) is between 380 and 700nm. Structures smaller than that can’t be visualised with the “classical” microscope that is based on light, no matter how sophisticated the setup is! In order to visualise and analyse nanoscale materials or structures it needs different kind of microscopes and spectroscopes. More about that later. The other significant point is that most “biomolecules” – proteins, DNA, cell compartments, etc. – are in the range of nanometers. A carbon atom is about 0.1nm in size, making a chain of 10 carbon atoms roughly 1nm long. By nanotechnological research the boarder to biology and biotechnology becomes blurry. Therefore, we call NT a “converging” technology.

Let’s bring more light into our understanding of NT by looking at the history of it, which is not very long, apparently:


In a famous visionary lecture in 1959, Richard Feynman pointed out that “there is plenty of room at the bottom”, referring to the big potential that is hidden in the smallest dimensions of matter that – at that time – were almost unexplored due to technical difficulties. Feynman imagined the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica written on the head of a needle. He envisioned the benefits and advantages of “building materials atom by atom”. The only problem: our “sticky fingers” that are just too big. The first person to use the term “Nanotechnology” was the Japanese scientist Norio Taniguchi. In the early 1980s the technical precondition for science at the nanoscale was discovered: Scanning Probe Microscopy. As mentioned before, our visible light spectrum can’t be exploited to “see” nanostructures since the amplitude of the electromagnetic wave is higher than the size of the material. A scanning tunneling microscope detects the material it analyses through an electric current. Like a very small “fingertip” it “scans” across the surface of the probe and detects height differences that are in the range of a few nanometer. Over the decade, massive improvements and advancements have been developed, but Binnig and Rohrer’s invention was the first of its kind and – finally – gave access to the nanoscale of matter and its discovery. Not long after that breakthrough, the first concerns arose. Eric Drexler expected that researchers sooner or later would develop “molecular machines” that can do mechanical work on a molecular basis, but also “nanobots”, self-replicating autonomous nanosized agents that could – once released – impact the environment so massively that it can’t be fixed anymore – a scenario known as “grey goo”. Another breakthrough pushed the development of “Nanoscience” in 1990: Scientists at IBM succeeded in manipulating single atoms. With the tip of a kind of scanning tunneling microscope they moved Xenon atoms on a surface and placed them to write “IBM”. Feynman’s vision was one step closer to become reality. During the 1990s great progress could be achieved in research on nanoscale materials and the exploitation of their properties. In Politics and industry it was soon recognized as huge potential for a new market of “nanoproducts” that promise economic profit. The first nation to run a state-funded “Nanotechnology Initiative” was USA in 2001, followed by the EU, Japan and South Korea. Also Taiwan invested a lot into its “National Program on Nanotechnology”. Today, people even talk about a “Nano-Age” (as in “iron age” or “IT decade”), referring to NT as the most impacting technology of these times.

Let’s have a look at definitions of what “Nanotechnology” actually is. The Foresight Institute in USA published this definition:

Structures, devices, and systems having novel properties and functions due to the arrangement of their atoms on the 1 to 100 nanometer scale. Many fields of endeavour contribute to nanotechnology, including molecular physics, materials science, chemistry, biology, computer science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.

This definition refers solely to the length scale and defines the area of research activitiy by disciplines of science and engineering. This definition was criticised to be not precise enough and to bear misunderstandings. We have seen that biomolecules are also in the range of a few to a few hundred nanometers. Does that make a cell or another organism “nanotechnology”? The definition that was used for the US-American NNI looks like this:

“Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications. Encompassing nanoscale science, engineering, and technology, nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, modelling, and manipulating matter at this length scale.”

Here, an important aspect is added: NT requires an active manipulation of matter, a directed exploitation of nanoscale effects, to count as NT. We will see in a minute what these “unique phenomena” and “novel effects” are that these definitions talk about. We keep in mind that the basic idea of NT involves the scientific analysis and understanding of nanosized materials, exploitation of properties for engineering and product development, and the application of such products to constitute the “technology” that results from scientific activity. Besides these rather technical definitions, I would like to present another viewpoint, communicated by researchers from the IBM Watson research center:

“[Nanotechnology is] an upcoming economic, business, and social phenomenon. Nano-advocates argue it will revolutionize the way we live, work and communicate.”

This statement doesn’t contain any scientific or technological information. It simply claims – not without a certain critical undertone – that NT is a political or social construct, a concept to group certain scientific and technological activities together as a strategy to generate economic value. It points out its social dimension by mentioning its impact on the daily life of the general public – the way we live, work and communicate. This definition will be significant for the second part of this lecture. We will see how NT is discussed among different “stakeholders” and what kind of ethical, legal and social concerns it gives rise to. But first, let’s now see what is so special about nanosized matter:


Most of the properties of matter – chemical reactivity, electronic behaviour, magnetic susceptibility, etc. – depend on the surface size and configuration of the material since only the surface atoms can reveal their electrons’ characteristics. Let’s make a thought experiment to understand how the surface of a material increases when it is “cut” into smaller and smaller particles. Imagine a dice that has an edge length of 1000 atoms (about 100nm). It has, therefore, 1 billion atoms. We can count 8 corner atoms, 12 edges with 998 atoms each, so it is 11976 “edge atoms”, and 6 faces with almost 6 million face atoms. Altogether, 6 million out of 1 billion atoms are on the surface, the others are “inside” the dice. The ratio of “outer” to “inner” atoms is 0.006. Now we cut this dice into 1000 dices with an edge length of 100 atoms (=10nm). Each dice has now almost 59,000 surface atoms (corner+edge+face). 59,000 out of 1 million, that is a ratio of outer to inner atoms of 0.062. With other words: the one bigger dice had 6 million surface atoms, the 1000 smaller ones have, altogether, 59 million surface atoms, almost 10 times more. This increases dramatically when we cut such a 10nm dice into 1000 1nm-dices that have an edge length of 10 atoms: such a dice has now 1000 atoms out of which 488 are surface atoms, almost half! In our thought experiment, the first 100-nm-dice cut into 1 million 1nm-dices increased the number of surface atoms from 6 million to 488 million! You can imagine that this leads to a massive change of chemical and physical properties! Let me give you a few examples of how properties change at the nanoscale:


Actually, this slide is so full of fundamental Physics and Chemistry that it would take us an advanced course over one semester to get a glimpse of understanding of it! It will be a course on quantum theory, electron vibrational modes, band gaps, and other topics that are much too complicated for an introductory lecture for non-scientists. Therefore, we won’t even try to understand it. What is totally sufficient for our understanding of NT are the following aspects concerning electronic, optic and magnetic properties of materials: All three are size-dependent, that means they are different at different sizes of the bulk material. For macroscopic objects, for example, the electronic characteristics can be described using Ohm’s law. For nanoparticles it is not valid anymore: electrons show a behaviour that deviates so much from the predictions by Ohm’s law, that we can’t apply it to nanosized materials. This has to do with “energy states” of electrons in the material: In smaller confined limits (e.g. a nanoparticle) with fewer atoms, they are less flexible and can’t change their positions, they are more “distinct”. That means, a material that shows high conductivity as a bulky material (for example a dice of 1cm³ or a 10cm wire) can be non-conductive in the nanoparticle form, or vice versa. Quantum effects occur much more often than in larger-sized particles. Due to a completely different interaction with light, for example refraction or absorbtion, some materials have totally different optical properties, for example different emission maxima, expressed by different colours. The photo shows Cadmiumtelluride Nanoparticles of different sizes between 10 and 100nm. Each have different absorbtion maxima and, therefore, show different colours. Also magnetic properties can change drastically for smaller particle sizes: a macroscopically non-magnetic material can form ferromagnetic nanoparticles. Also the strength of the resulting magnetic field and coercive forces (the energy needed to switch the magnetic spin, “N” and “S” so to say) can vary in both directions (higher or lower for nanoparticles), depending on the material. Let me show you a famous example that we can see in our surrounding, at least in Europe, every day:


Gold and silver don’t have golden or silver colour in the nanoparticle form. They show – like here on the left – all kinds of colours at different particle sizes and even dependent on the particle fashion, for example spheres or prisms. We can see these effects, actually, in coloured glasses, for example these beautiful church windows from the medieval ages or even older! Of course the glass manufacturers didn’t know what actually happened on the nanolevel, but they produced gold and silver nanoparticles by doping the silicate they made the glass from with traces of gold and silver salts.


Before we have a closer look at a few examples of nanomaterials, I’d like to explain the two major approaches of fabrication of nanostructures. The “bottom-up” approach uses building blocks (atoms, molecular fragments, monomers, etc.) to assemble larger compounds, analogue to a wall constructed by putting bricks together, or a statue made from parts. The “top-down” approach carves or shapes bigger structures (bulky materials, polymers, complex structures, etc.) into the desired configuration by removing the unnecessary parts, like a statue carved out of a big stone. There is a few nanoparticle types that, in principle, could be fabricated both ways, but usually for some nanomaterials the most efficient fabrication method follows a bottom-up strategy, for others the top-down approach works better.


In this figure we can see the main fields of activity of NT. Different areas and colours show the involved scientific fields: Classical “natural sciences” like Physics and Chemistry, material sciences, engineering on the right, the life sciences like Biology, Medicine, Cognitive sciences on the left. The size of a circle reflects the number of published research articles, which is a good measure for how much research is done in that field. The lines between circles reflect interdisciplinary collaborations of researchers from different fields. We notice two things from this overview: First, the two major fields of NT activity are material sciences (developing, investigating and improving nanomaterials) and biomedical research. Second, whereas the material sciences part is more active in producing and publishing research results, the life science part is conducting more interdisciplinary research. The high activity in the material sciences is not surprising for a new and emerging scientific field: They set the basis for the development by conducting fundamental research on properties and behaviour of new materials and their application potential. It is more remarkable that within a decade a very active body of interdisciplinary research in an “applied” field of NT arose: Nanomedicine and other human body related domains. We will see later why this is important to recognize!


Probably the most famous nanoscaled material is Carbon Nanotubes. They consist of Carbon only and, therefore, are just another carbon modification next to carbon black, diamonds and graphene. In fact, they can be imagined as a graphene sheet rolled up to a tube (but this is NOT how they are fabricated!). Graphene is a plain of carbon atoms in which each carbon atom is covalently bound to three other carbon atoms (for the Chemists: sp²-hybridised C-atoms) forming a hexagonal lattice. They can be single-walled tubes or double-walled tubes (a tube inside another tube, so to say). Depending on the fashion and exact geometry of this lattice in the tube-form, CNTs can have semiconductive or metallic (conductive) electronic properties. This makes them perfect materials for transistors, memory elements, displays, or sensors. Fibres made from CNTs can sustain strong forces and are stronger but much lighter than steel. This makes this material interesting for aviation engineering and other fields that can benefit from strong and light materials.


The most common and probably biggest group of nanomaterials is inorganic nanoparticles of all kinds of shapes, mostly spheres, prisms and with totally random shape. The materials range from silica, metals, metal oxides or sulfides to alloys and more. We have seen some of their properties already, like optical or electronic characteristics. Here is another example of special behaviour: a “ferrofluid” consisting of nanoparticles that act each as a tiny magnet so that droplets show this spectacular phenomenon when taken up with a magnet. Scientists and engineers can now modify and manipulate these properties so that materials can serve very distinct purposes for certain applications.


Also organic substances, those that are mostly made of molecules consisting of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, can be exploited to fabricate nanoparticles. These can be polymer plastics or self-assembled agglomerations from buildingblocks (a good example for “bottom-up” NT). The degree of complexity has almost no upper limit. The particle we see here which almost looks like a cell, is one of the most sophisticated artificial nanostructure I could find. It is build from a lipid bilayer around a nanoporous silica-core. The bilayer, that functions as a kind of membrane, is equipped with peptides that serve as receptor units to “find” certain cells in a body. The particle can be “loaded” with cargo: nanoparticles, drugs, RNA fragments, etc. This container, subjected into a body, can (for example) find cancer cells with its receptor peptides on the surface, unloads its cargo, for example a certain drug or toxin, into the cancer cells and kill the tumor. Healthy cells remain unaffected and are not exposed to the toxins. This process is called “targeted drug delivery” and a promising method for “Nanomedicine” since it is efficient and “mild” compared to current treatments like chemotherapy.


I’d like to show you a medical application of nanoparticles: Hyperthermia. This is a brain cancer therapy with iron oxide nanoparticles that are coated with a bioactive layer comparable to the one on the previous slide. It has receptor proteins on the surface that recognise cancer cells specifically so that the particles agglomerate in the cancer cells. Here, the particles don’t deliver therapeutic agents but are the agent themselves: The magnetic properties are exploited to kill the tumour. Let’s see how that works: First, a dispersion of such nanoparticles is injected into the brain tumour. This is also the limiting factor at the moment and the reason why it can’t be applied to liver tumours or other organs: The brain can be perforated with a needle without being destroyed. This is not possible with other organs. After the injection the particles accumulate inside the tumour cells while healthy tissue remains unaffected. The patient is then subjected into an MRI that generates a high frequency magnetic field, that means the magnetic field switches the poles rapidly. The magnetic nanoparticles align to the field, but due to the high frequency they start shaking or vibrating. This effect creates a lot of local heat. The tumour cells with the nanoparticles heat up until they are destroyed. The researcher who “invented” this treatment, Prof. Jordan from Berlin, founded a company, MagForce AG, that holds the patent and is now focusing on this kind of treatment. Clinical tests have been successful and it is now approved as medical treatment.


Next to the huge range of nanoscale compounds and their application, another focus of research is on nanoscaled surface modifications. In principle, many types of surface patterning that we know “macroscopically”, like all forms of printing, carving, burning, writing or perforating, can have a “nanoscopic” analogue. We can “write” with electron beams and lasers, scratch surfaces with tips, imprint with stencils, deposit “inks” with nano pens or stamps. Same as in the macroscopic world, we can distinguish “serial” production (like “writing” line by line, dot by dot, here the first row), parallel methods (like a multilever printhead, as in the middle row) or mass production (like printing a newspaper, here the methods in the bottom row). We can also classify by chemical or physical approch. The most common are adding or removing a resist layer from the surface for further processing (left column), using temperature and pressure to mechanically modify the surface (scratching, imprinting, etc., the middle column), or deposit chemical substances locally confined on a substrate (right column). Just for your information: My research during my PhD course was on “soft lithography” (bottom right): I “printed” organic molecules with a rubber stamp onto a surface that carried a layer of complementary molecules so that I can observe a chemical reaction between the ink molecules and the surface molecules in the contact area of the stamp. That means, it is not only a “deposition” of molecules, but they are chemically bound to the substrate surface. This allows several applications for sensorchips, test arrays, etc.


Here is an example of what surface modifications can be good for. We can observe on the leaves of the Lotus plant that dust and other dirt is repelled and runs down the leave without leaving a stain. When we look onto the surface of a Lotus leaf with an electron microscope we find nanoscaled wax crystals that give the surface a rippled profile like this (top middle picture). What is the effect of this pattern? On a perfectly plain surface a water droplet disperses well and has a huge contact area with the surface. Dirt particles are not taken up by the droplet but might be displaced or just remain where they are. On a surface that is structured and very rough on the nanoscale, a droplet doesn’t disperse. Also, dirt particles are more loosely attached to the tiny peaks of the “nanohills”. A water droplet runs down this kind of surface easily and takes the dirt particles with it. This is called “Lotus effect” because it can be best observed on Lotus leaves. This inspired technical applications such as facade painting techniques or car coatings.

This is a very rough overview of nanotechnological possibilities. Research is ongoing and developing new insights and applications on a daily basis. Countless research articles and book increase our knowledge about phenomena and properties of matter at the nanoscale rapidly! This was the “state of the art”, probably lagging a little bit behind. What we can keep in mind, however, is that we are still far from Drexler’s vision of autonomous self-replicating nanobots and a “grey goo” scenario. Before we go on to the next part on social and regulatory aspects of Nanotechnology, I’d like to relax and clear your minds with a little breaktime game.

I will give you the first three numbers of a sequence of numbers that follows a certain rule. The rule is in my head. You have to find out the rule. Please make a suggestion for the next number in the sequence. In case it is a correct suggestion, tell a possible rule. Here are the first three numbers:

2, 4, 6

Student: “8!” – Yes, that is a possible next number. What could be the rule? Student: “It is all the even numbers.” – No, that is not the rule in my head.

2, 4, 6, 8 – What could be the next number?

Student: “10!” – Yes, possible. Rule? “The next number is the previous number plus 2.” – No, not my rule, sorry.

2, 4, 6, 8, 10 – Any more suggestions?

Student: “17?” – Yes, that is a possible next number! Student: “A number must be higher than the previous number?” – Yes, that is the rule!

What happened here? Most of you applied a principle that most researchers use for their experiment designs and strategies: a positive confirmation. After 2, 4 and 6, you make a theory what the rule could be, for example “all even numbers”. According to your theory, the next number must then be 8. So you ask for 8. And when you find 8, you think your theory is confirmed. But in many cases this is misleading! If you want your theory to be confirmed, do a negative test! Ask something that would be excluded by your theory! If you still find it, your theory must be wrong! All the “big scientific theories” that sustained over the centuries have been solidified by negative confirmation, not by positive confirmation! The most prominent example is the biological evolution of this planet and its life forms that nobody seriously doubts today. Darwin didn’t publish his insights before years of experiments and investigations with “negative” experiments to make sure his interpretations of observations are correct. The message is: Doubt everything! Think twice! Don’t be too confident with what you think you “understood”!

I hope you can see how this plays an important role especially for Nanosciences! As we have learned, we can’t really “see” nanoparticles. The representations we get through spectroscopy and other imaging processes are not more than mere theory-laden interpretations of numerical data. However, when it comes to explanations of the characteristics and properties of applied nanotechnology, we have to be sure about the effect and impact of such phenomena on environment and society when exposed to them. With this, we are at the topic that I’d like to tell you today: Potentials and risks of Nanotechnology and how they can be evaluated and dealt with.

The focus of science, research and engineering is usually on the properties and effects of nanoscaled materials in the fabrication and manufacturing process, in the application and consumption phase, and at the end of the life cycle, the disposal and/or recycling of the material. Studying the impact of nanomaterials onto environment, health and safety is then a matter of toxicology, and “risk” is defined as a toxicity risk. However, when we ask different “stakeholders” (those who are in any way engaged in NT development) about “risk”, they will all express different concerns.


The society’s understanding of “risk” is often linked to fears and other emotional concerns. They can be irrational, ill-informed, irreasonable and simply “wrong”, but nevertheless they have to be taken into account. When we look back at the biotechnology and genetic engineering debate, it was highly emotional and irrational, but by this the society was “lost” on the way: Many potential benefits of Biotechnology and genetics could not be realised because there was no more support from the public. Therefore, it would be wrong to play down or even ignore the public concerns on technology and their fears. It is rather recommended to respond to these concerns in the right way.

Scientists have a very different risk perception. I’d like to distinguish the “natural scientists” (including engineers) who – focused on technical aspects – conduct empirical studies and perform numerical evaluations (e.g. how likely is it that a certain particle concentration is reached which kills all the fish in this river…) from “social scientists” who perform semi-empirical studies and or more focused on the people. (e.g. who, besides the fish, is affected by what kind of impact (locals, fish traders, other animal species, etc.) if a pollutant kills all the fish in this river…).

Businessmen and economists ask different questions. They see “risk” in terms of economic impact and might evaluate it more in monetary aspects: How does a risk impact my profit?

Politicians – ideally – see it as their task to keep risk levels at a minimum and support the benefit side by making the right decisions for policy and governance. They want to know details about risk levels in order to respond to threats with regulatory guidance.

Last but not least, questions of “risk” are always also philosophical questions, especially in Ethics: What is a risk and for who, and what kind of value is at risk in a particular situation. Ethicists define the normative framework in which a risk debate is held.

What are the viewpoints concerning Nanotechnology and its ethical and social implications? Let’s ask the different stakeholders that sit together at one table and exchange their viewpoints! Please keep in mind that I ask that as a European. In other parts of the world, for example in Taiwan, the viewpoints might be different!

The scientist: “There is nothing new, ethically, with Nano! There is no need for further ethical debate, it is just another scientific and technological branch! There is just one problem: There is a risk from uncertainty. That means, we need to conduct more research, especially on toxicology! Then, all problems will be solved!

The regulator/policy-maker: “Existing regulations and laws are sufficient for the governance of Nanotechnology, but in some cases require an extension or add-on for Nanomaterials (for example in the European Chemical registry “REACH”). We also see a problem from the fact that there is not enough information on the toxicity of nanomaterials. Therefore, we face a situation of uncertainty. As we usually do in the European Union, we apply the “precautionary principle”: As long as there is a certain degree of uncertainty concerning toxicity risks, a product can’t enter the market, or a substance can’t be commercialised.

The industrialist/product developer/businessman: “We have to exploit the potentials of NT, as quick as possible! In order to make our investments profitable and our economy internationally competitive, we need to get out of the labs and onto the market! We need more support for translational research! But product safety is an important issue! If a product “fails” on the market due to a lack of trust, bad publicity or negative media coverage, we lose the chance of high profits!

The sociologist: “Public acceptance of a new and emerging technology is more than just risk assessment! People are not exclusively rational! We should aim at “societal embedding” of technology, which is again more than just public acceptance. It is the sustainable aligning of technological with societal progress! The construction of the one can’t be sustainable without being embedded into the construction of the other! Nanotechnology development requires careful regulatory guidance and accompanying research on ethical and social implications in order to achieve this goal!”

The Public: “We want to be informed and involved! The past has shown that every technological and scientific progress has two sides, it is always “dual”! Therefore, it is understandable that we approach NT with scepticism and fears. We also want to point out, that these concerns are highly dependent on cultural and social context and may change over time!” Note: It might be asked who, in particular, is “the public” or representing it. In practical discourses, these are usually NGOs or interest groups like patient groups (e.g. the European League Against Rheumatism (EULAR), “Rheumaliga”), environmental activists (e.g. Greenpeace) or local groups (e.g. anti nuclear power movements).

The ethicist: “It doesn’t really matter if there is anything “new” with NT or not, or if there is special “Nanoethics”. There definitely ARE arising conflicts in Nanomedicine, surveillance technology, military technology, etc., and these require ethical reflection, clarification and solution, ideally expressed in NT governance and R&D conduct.

In the recent years, the EU regulatory bodies and policy-makers recognised the importance of accompanying S&T progress with studies on ethical and social questions, as here requested by the “sociologist”! Let’s see how the risk debate evolved:


This overview marks a development in several respects: First, it describes levels of complexity concerning the activities of different enactors (risk researchers, STS researchers, TA researchers) and there concepts of “sustainable development”. Second, it also describes advancements in the development of S&T-accompanying studies over the past 2-3 decades. The “easiest” (and oldest) form of risk analysis is the empirical risk assessment that identifies hazards (e.g. toxicity of substances), studies the exposure (how much? for who? where? when?) and characterises the risk on the basis of these findings. This risk is communicated and managed as best as possible. This approach responds to the risk perception and awareness of public or other stakeholders of a technological development. It turned out that this is not sufficient. In order to gain public acceptance – a basis for the “success” of a new technology – clear definitions of standards concerning environmental, health and safety issues are necessary. Many companies defined these standards for their internal safety and quality measures, both for worker protection and for appearing trustworthy to the public. In science and research, an increasing awareness for the importance of reflecting “ethical, legal and social implication” (ELSI) of scientific activity could be observed. Especially national or EU-funded research programs implemented workpackages on “ELSI”. Some even talked about this trend as “elsification of science”: There was no more value-free science! Whereas these approaches still somehow separated the institutions “science” and “public” – “here the science that works on progress, there the public that has to accept it” – latest approaches aim at “societal embedding” of S&T progress. Technology Foresight as a sociological method wants to guide the development by proper methodologies like scenario analysis, modelling, assessments, etc. Technology Assessment (TA) goes one step further and aims at enriching developments in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary discourse on S&T and institutionalising the ELSI reflection as a governance tool. Different conceptualisations such as “constructive TA”, “participatory TA” or “parliamentary TA” all have in common that they want to serve as an “early warning” against possible side-effects and risks of S&T development on the one hand, and recognise potentials and benefits of new technologies and explore strategies to optimally harvest chances on the other hand.

Back to Nanotechnology: Why is NT such a “hot topic” for Technology Assessment and ELSI research? We have defined NT as a social and political endeavour earlier. Worldwide we can observe an almost “campaign-like” political support of NT, making it an R&D field with high social and environmental impact, not only through new substances and materials with unknown properties and uncertain effects, but also through technological output that might change “the way we live, work and communicate”. Some sociologists expressed their viewpoint that there actually is no such thing as “Nanotechnology” or “Nanoscience” since scientists, engineers and product developers do the same thing they did before it was labeled “Nanotechnology”. NT is, according to them, simply a political agenda that is run as a response to the experiences with the Biotechnology/Genetics field: Politicians and economists want to avoid making the same mistakes: In BT they “lost” the public to fears and irrational concerns, in NT they try hard to win the public’s trust by pointing out – almost advertising – the “great potentials” and “revolutionary benefits” of NT, facilitated by mass media and a new dimension of “science communication”. TA/ELSI research regards itself as the “balancing pole” to mediate between the public’s concerns and fears and the campaigners overconfident prospects. Additionally, the “special” thing about NT is its “emerging” and “converging” character. “Emerging” means that its progress catalyses and accelerates its own further progress – the more phenomena are uncovered and exploited the more fields of “Nano”-related R&D open up. “Converging” means that it covers and includes more and more disciplines, as we have seen in that “science map”. Bridging “traditional” classifications of natural sciences and engineering, it is often grouped together with biotechnology (and genetic engineering), Information and communication technology and cognitive and neurosciences to the “NBIC” sciences. Giving access and giving rise to new scientific and technological possibilities, to new technological artefacts and products that enter the industry and consumer market might have the potential to change societies. This is a regulatory challenge! With the idea of “societal embedding” in mind, the development process can’t be left unwatched on the one side, but a governing approach shouldn’t block useful and helpful innovations. NT might be beyond the “positivistic” S&T paradigm that all upcoming troubles and problems can be solved by the “right” Policy. There are several realistic scenarios on NT-related technologies in which there actually is a “too-late-situation”. Finding the fine balance between careful precautious regulation and supportive S&T governance is a big task for national and international legislations! Another “achievement” of NT is a new rise of science ethics. The debate on ethical aspects of this particular S&T field triggered a growing awareness for connections between science and society, sensibilised scientists and researchers for “Good scientific practice” and appropriate “Code of Conduct” in Science, and led to debates on values and worldviews in general. We will see details on this later.

Let’s leave the European perspective for a moment and have a look at Taiwan in comparison. In the year 2000 the Executive Yuan’s Science and Technology Advisory Group established NT as “key area” of national R&D, confirmed in 2002. In 2002 the National Science Council approved in its 157th Meeting the “National Program on Nanotechnology” (NPNT) for 6 years (2003-08), later extended by a “Phase II” (2009-2015), approved in the 178th Meeting of NSC in 2008. All in all, 177 Billion NT$ were pronounced to be invested into Nanoscience and innovation research in the two stages of Taiwan’s NNI, making it the sixth largest NT funding program worldwide (in terms of financial volume). As far as communicated by the legislators, the major intention of running the NNI at this large scale was to facilitate commercial developments of nanotechnological applications. The substantive focus of research that was primarily supported by the program was on nanobiotechnology, basic research on characteristics of nanoscale materials, development of nanodevices and nanoprobes and their applications. In terms of the “science map” overview, the focus of the NNI in Taiwan was much more on contributions to the fields on the right side (material sciences, physics) rather than on the left side (interdisciplinary biomedicine, nanomedicine). Between 2003 and 2005 Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Bureau invested 22 Mio. NT$ on research into risk controls and environmental issues related to NT in lab or factory. 22 Million out of 177 Billion, that is 0,012% (for comparison: The NNI in the USA determined 2% of its funding for EHS and ELSI research)! The “success” of a S&T program is difficult to determine. The direct impact on the GDI, for example, is impossible to measure due the complexity of mechanisms in the interplay of science, industry and the global markets. One hint can be derived from patent generation. Here, Taiwan is only ranked 15th in the international comparison. As 6th largest Nano-campaigner, this is rather disappointing.


In order to understand Taiwan’s S&T Policy approaches we have to look a little bit into the recent past of Taiwan. In the early years of KMT reign on Taiwan, the support of scientific and technological development was of no significant importance for the leaders. The main goal of Chiang Kai-Shek was to get back the power over the mainland and leave the island again. The initiators of scientific and technological governance came from outside the elite (e.g. technocrats like Li Guoding, foreign advisors) and needed the support of “external” factors and events: In the 1950s, the US financial aid was paid under the precondition to invest certain amounts into S&T development. In the late 1950s and early 60s, Taiwan invested into nuclear physics, hoping to make advancements in the development of nuclear weapons before the enemy – PR China – would. In the 1970s the ROC was derecognized by more and more countries, losing several financial aid sources. At the end of the 1970s the government, now under leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek’s son, was finally convinced that only a strong support of local S&T as R&D motor under political guidance could lead to a stable Taiwan. The Hsinchu Science Park, The Industrial Technology Research Institute and the Science and Technology Advisory Group were founded. Under strict authoritative governance by the KMT – it was still the era of martial law – the technological progress was fast and efficient, it led to the “Taiwan Miracle”. The “success story” following this era led to a strong “sciencism” in Taiwan – the trust in S&T development as guarantor of wealth and good life. The viewpoint of the technocrats that pushed and promoted the focus on S&T support as foundation of wealth influenced the public perception of technological progress sustainably. It is widely believed that the comforts and advances of today’s Taiwan’s lifestyle are the merits of technological progress that led to higher international industrial competitiveness and economic growth. Let me illustrate that by an example: The labelling system for Nano-products.


In the EU the labelling of products containing nanotechnological components is still under discussion. It is understood as a “warning label” for protection, giving the consumer the chance to decide not to buy it. Basically, it is a response to the high degree of scepticism and worries among consumers that are “afraid” of Nano. It reflects the highest ethical values of European societies: Freedom (“informed consent”, or here: “informed denial”) and autonomy (self-determination). It is also remarkable that the suggestions for this warning label (here on the left) already look like something dangerous. In Taiwan, the situation is completely different! The “NanoMark”, the world’s first official Nano-label, is understood as a “marketing label” that shows the consumer which of the products he can choose from contains nanomaterials. It is based on the observation that the acceptance of NT among Taiwanese people is exceptionally high. They associate NT with “innovation” and “something fancy and new”. It was found that products with the NanoMark increased their sales numbers. In contrast to Germany where companies have to be forced to label their “Nano” products, in Taiwan companies misusing the label for marketing reasons had to be forced to remove the label because they put it on a product that actually doesn’t contain any “nano” compounds. Also trust plays an important role: Here, the trust in food or cosmetic industry is so low (due to a large number of reported scandals) that people have no choice but trusting the government that implements a labelling system that gives the people the feeling that there is, at least, something to rely on (“It has a label, it must be somehow tested, at least!”). The considerations that motivated the NanoMark introduction had mostly the competitiveness of the local industry and the social wealth in mind.

Before we go on to the next section on Ethical implications, let me summarise and highlight the most important aspects that we learned so far:

  • Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies develop and provide products that bear high potentials and go along with risks.
  • These risks are either scientific/technical (e.g. toxicity) or ethical/legal/social (e.g. privacy and autonomy in medicine).
  • „Nanotechnology“ can be regarded as a political agenda.
  • Societal embedding and culture-specific ethical and social frameworks are very important!
  • Taiwan‘s NNI focused mainly on economic growth, ethical and social aspects have been ignored.

I’d like to start the next section with a story:

A young student visits an old and renown Philosophy scholar in his office. He wants to study Philosophy under his guidance and asked for support. The old Professor says: “You are not ready to understand the depth of Philosophy.”. The youngster inquires that he has a degree from Harvard University and believes his intellectual and logic skills to be high enough to study Philosophy. The Professor decides to give it a chance and offers to test the young man. He tells him this question:”Two burglars break into a house through the chimney. One comes out of the chimney with a clean face, the other one with a dirty face. Which one will go and wash his face?”

The student replies: “The one with the dirty face, of course!”

The Professor: “No, wrong! Apply your logic! The one with dirty face sees his companion with a clean face, so why would he know he should wash his face? The one with the clean face will wash his face. He can see his companion with a dirty face, so he thinks his face is dirty, too. So he will go and wash it.”

He goes on: “I will give you another chance! Here is the question: Two burglars break into a house through the chimney. One comes out of the chimney with a clean face, the other one with a dirty face. Which one will go and wash his face?”

The confused student says: “Didn’t we just have that? I got it! The one with a clean face will go and wash it!”

Professor: “No, wrong again! First the one with a clean face will go and wash it because he sees the companion with the dirty face. Then the other one must think that he should wash his face, too! So they both go and wash their faces!”

The student agrees but starts feeling miserable about his failure. He humbly asks for another test. The Professor agrees and asks him the same question again: “Two burglars break into a house through the chimney. One comes out of the chimney with a clean face, the other one with a dirty face. Which one will go and wash his face?”

The student, now even more puzzled, explains: “As you just said: They both go and wash their faces!”

Professor: “No, wrong! Neither of them washes the face! The one with the dirty face, seeing the partner with a clean face, feels no urge to wash his face. Therefore, the one with the clean face, even though he believes his face is dirty, too, also doesn’t go to wash his face, because why bother when the partner also doesn’t bother?!”

The student, now almost desperate, asks for one last chance. He is sure, he got it now. The Professor gives him that last chance and asks, again: “Two burglars break into a house through the chimney. One comes out of the chimney with a clean face, the other one with a dirty face. Which one will go and wash his face?”

The student, almost crying, says: “You just said ‘Neither’!”

Professor: “Sorry, wrong again! You see, all your logic doesn’t help! Don’t you think that situation is very unlikely to happen? Two burglars coming in through the same chimney and one having a clean face, the other a dirty face? That is impossible! I told you, you are not ready to understand Philosophy!”

The student replies: “But that is unfair! What can I do when you ask the same question four times and every time the answer is different and even contradictory to the former one?”

Professor: “But THIS IS Philosophy!”

We will now talk about Ethics. Ethics is a Philosophical discipline. I want you to keep in mind that there is never “the one correct answer” on most “ethical” topics. Whenever there is only one “right” answer, we probably don’t discuss about it, and then it is not part of our ethical considerations. In all the cases presented here, you can be assured that there is no simple solution, at least none that wouldn’t require a discourse or clarification on it. The way I present the following issues might make them sound simpler than they actually are. But I can tell you, they are not!


Ethics is defined as the reflection and reasoning of what is “good” or “right”. As a Philosophical discipline, it has a long history and is still a huge topic that we try to understand by structuring it into different classes. We can do this in different ways. First of all, we can distinguish “descriptive, prescriptive and meta ethics”. Descriptive Ethics investigates the historical, cultural and social background of Ethics, in other words: what people actually believed or concluded at which time and at which place. Sentences like “In the medieval ages the society’s value system originated from Christian Ethics.”, or “68% of the German people give “freedom” the highest importance in the set of values.” are statement from descriptive ethics. Normative or prescriptive ethics, the core of ethical reasoning, tells us what is good or right based on the input from certain ethical theories and principles.  Meta ethics is the “ethics of ethics”: it analyses the performance applicability, justification and conduct of ethical reasoning as in “Is the way we do ethics the right way?”. One remark on the English word “Ethics”: As a singular term (the one Ethics) it means the philosophical discipline. As a plural term (“many ethics”) it is synonym to “morals” and means the particular moral rules and guidelines. Therefore, we can say: We derive our moral rules (plural “ethics”) from Ethics (singular).

The heart of Ethics is the principles that we exploit to reason our viewpoints and to come to conclusion in ethical evaluations. In different times and different places wise Philosophers elaborated sophisticated theories based on different preconditions and suggested methods and strategies to support arguments with these theoretical foundations. The first to structure the reflection on “the good life” were the ancient Greek Philosophers who came up with “virtue ethics”. Much later, during the European Enlightenment era and afterwards, other concepts like Deontology, Consequentialism, Contractualism or Discourse Ethics have been developed. More about this later. Over the past 40 years a new “boom” of ethics could be observed in Europe and USA. “Applied ethics” discusses highly specific topics in particular fields such as medical ethics, bio ethics, research ethics, science and technology ethics, media ethics, business ethics, profession ethics, political ethics, risk ethics, etc. When doing ELSI research on Nanotechnology we touch the fields of S&T Ethics, research ethics, medical and bioethics and environmental ethics. They all draw their conclusions and reflections on the basis of the established ethical theories. When I planned this lecture, I first had in mind to explain all these theories one by one first, and then see how we can evaluate Nanotechnological aspects with these fundamental principles. I changed my mind when I realised that it would take me a few hours to give you just a glimpse of an idea of these principles. I will follow this approach: We will learn something about ethical implications of Nanotechnology and ethical principles in parallel! We will understand the NT-related concerns and arguments by ethics and we will deepen our understanding of ethics through Nanotechnology cases.


Here I illustrated the symbolic lifecycle of a nanoparticle in 5 basic stages: First, it is designed and planned, then it is synthesized, analysed and characterized by research methods. After that a product is developed from it, it is manufactured and sold on the market. By this, it enters the application or consumption phase in which consumers or other people are exposed to it. Finally, at the end of its lifecycle, it is disposed and decaying or, in some cases, recycled. These stages represent the development and application steps in nanotechnological progress. I will now take one characteristic ethical concern for each phase and apply one of the major ethical theories to each aspect to show how we can reflect that issue. Five phases, five ethical concerns, five ethical theories. Again, please keep in mind that I do this for didactic reasons. Of course, each of the ethical principles can be applied to all kind of ethical concerns. For strategic reasons I will discuss the “idea and design” phase at the end and start with the “research phase” of NT:


Scientists, engineers and researchers do their activities with high responsibility. Therefore, it is important to follow guidelines of “good scientific practice” and refrain from misconduct. This means, similar to medical professions, scientist should comply with a professional “ethos” of scientific conduct. An ethos is a term used for a set of virtues that members of a professional community should follow. The idea of virtues as a source for knowing what is “good” and “right” is the oldest form of Ethics. Most prominent advocates of virtue ethics are the ancient Greek Philosophers, especially Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, but also the Asian schools of thought from that time, Kongzi’s, Laozi’s and Siddhartha Gautama’s (Buddha’s) Philosophy, are at least partly built on the idea of “virtues” as a source for good life conduct. What was these wise men’s idea? If you want to find out what you should do, imagine the “ideal” person and what he would do, and that is what you should do. For example: when you are a soldier and wonder how you should do in a certain situation, you imagine the “ideal soldier” and will certainly find that he would have virtues like bravery, courage, and persistence, but would certainly not have vices (the opposite of virtues) like daredevilry or cowardice. Therefore, you – as a soldier – should act brave and wise. In all kinds of life situations and the roles a person can find itself in – politician, citizen, husband, etc. – this consideration can be applied. Some virtues are valid for all and therefore considered “universal virtues”, like wisdom or benevolence. The approach sounds simple and, actually, it was criticised to be vague and arbitrary. However, in many cases it serves the purpose of defining codes of conduct very well and is easy to understand for those who are obliged to follow the rules. Let’s see what are virtues of scientific conduct: First of all, we may expect intellectual honesty and truthfulness from a researcher, making him commit himself to truth seeking and truth assurance. Another aspect is the often raised call for objectivity and dedicated disinterestedness, which just means that a scientist should have no other interest but the generation of insight and knowledge, and especially no “interest” in the kind and type of result he obtains. The selfless devotion to the ambitious goal of knowledge increase should not be blurred by selfish careerism or the interests of any sponsors. Methods for obtaining these ideals are systematized doubt and disciplined self-control. Apart from that, it is truly justified to expect fairness from the scientist concerning his colleagues and competitors. These are virtues for the individual scientist for his daily research work. There are also “communal” virtues for the scientific community as a whole: Science should be universalistic, that means “valid independent from time, space and cultural framework”. It should not follow individual interests but, in each individual action, support and benefit the community of scientists or social institution of “science” as such – this is called communalism. Also, scientists should always be their own strongest critics, always question their theories and findings, and be most sceptic about their achievements.


These virtues describe an ideal. The reality, actually, looks different. We can observe a lot of misconduct in the sciences. What is scientific misconduct? Above all, it is fabrication, falsification and unauthorised copying (plagiarism) of data and text. There is a very large “grey zone”! When does “manipulation of data” start? Research face this situation every day: They repeat an experiment 4 times. Three times it shows a result they expect, one time it deviates from the expectation. Shall they just ignore that one? Skip it and never mention it again? Or within a series of measurements, one obtained value is far off. Delete that data point? It must not always be the intended manipulation of a device or the direct fabrication of results (inventing data without doing an experiment or study). The fraud starts earlier, but can grow into the clearly illegal area. What makes scientists do this? Many researchers feel a lot of pressure from a high competition within their institute or scientific community, from a funding source or from expectations by others or by themselves. Certainly, the character or personality of the researcher plays a role, and it is often pride that makes scientist commit fraud. Students are a special case: Diploma, Master or PhD students feel pressure to achieve a good mark with their thesis, so they feel like they have to obtain good results in their research project that is often limited in time. Next to the “FFP” aspects, there is a couple of other forms of immoral science conduct: Ignoring lab safety, publishing issues (e.g. adding authors to a paper who actually didn’t contribute anything to it, like the PI of a PhD student or PostDoc), funding-related aspects (for example, additional pressure, holding back publications, financial interests), or conflicts arising from the special situation of mentorship (e.g. exploitation of the PIs power, sexual harassment of female students, etc.). All these aspects are, of course, valid for all fields of scientific research, but I see an extraordinary strong impact of misconduct when it happens in the Nanosciences: We have learned earlier that – more than in other fields of science and research – Nanosciences is application-driven. Most of its development has products and materials or devices for application in mind. Under this new science paradigm (shifted from “exploring and knowledge-generating science” towards “creative and technology-developing science”), and for a converging science like NT, compliance with the virtues of “good scientific practice” is of special importance. Otherwise, the consequences of misconduct can be dramatic!

Speaking of “consequences”: Let’s move on to the next stage in the progress, the product-development and marketing phase!


As we have seen earlier, the progress in NT is full of risk and benefit considerations. From toxicological risk assessment and public assessment to the question of “social risks” and “ethical impact” – many questions on the release of nanomaterials and their application in products or devices are related to risks and benefits: what are risks and benefits, for who and to what extend? Sometimes the answer can be expressed in numbers (likelihood of hazard occurrence, pollution concentrations, or economic profit), in other cases the reflections are more abstract and require “normative” evaluations. However, the overall approach is to “maximise benefits”, which means in other words: What is “good” is determined by the outcome (or “consequences”). This viewpoint is shared by Consequentialistic Ethics that is a principle that bases its theory on the idea that every human being desires to increase its well-being. Therefore, the action that increases the well-being (or pleasure) of the highest possible number of entities (e.g. human beings) to the largest possible extend is the ethically favoured one. The most prominent form of Consequentialism is Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism, developed in the 18th/19th century. Again, it sounds simpler than it is! For example, some claim that in its almost numerical evaluation of “good outcome” it doesn’t care about unfairness and injustice: as long as the overall increase of well-being is the highest possible, it can accept “loss” and “losers” (for example hazards for a few animals as the prize for creating jobs in a certain area as consequences of building a new factory). However, many argumentations in the debate on NT commercialisation can be characterized as consequentialistic considerations: Is economic growth and monetary profit (which, according to the companies, benefits the society, of course) so important that risk from uncertainties on nanomaterials’ effects can be accepted? Should national interests (and governance strategies) or international justice be valued higher (for example when S&T policy-making of one country causes tension in the labour market of another country)? In general, regulation and governance of nanomaterials aims at protecting the society from harm, which means it wants to facilitate a “good outcome” of NT development. In some points, however, regulation itself might be a risk for the innovation process: It might hinder progress. On the other hand, if it favours a strategy of less regulatory influence in order to increase chances of innovation it might lag behind in shaping the legal framework for it. Whenever principles of precaution are discussed, it is – after all – a weighing of arguments in terms of implications for society and/or environment and, by this, consequentialistic. Additionally, from questions of outcomes and their impact, we also come to aspects of responsibility of NT progress: Who is in charge of considering ethical and social factors when promoting NT? Do scientists have to think of social implications of their research findings and take such reflections into account when planning and carrying out research projects? Or is it the industrialists who put products on the market, by this creating the link between the technological artefact and the “consumer” or “the public”? In other words: Who has to feed and evaluate the consequentialistic argument on “what is the best outcome and for who”?

As mentioned above, for many discourse participants consequentialistic arguments are not sufficient because they often deviate a lot from “common sense” morality. For example, in its strict interpretation, it would allow clearly immoral actions like lying or even killing, as long as the overall outcome is found to be “the one that increases the well-being (or pleasure) of the most people to the largest extend”. Let’s see what could be an alternative to this kind of reasoning:


In the former example, the basis for the idea to look at the outcome of an action as ethically relevant factor was the “well-being” (or pleasure) of human beings. Philosophers inquired that “well-being” is a too vague concept, very subjective and “corrupt”, or hedonistic. As a kind of “counter movement”, almost at the same time as the rise of consequentialism, another idea found many followers: The basis of human existence is our free will. As rational beings we can reflect upon our “self”, form desires and interests and express those in our decisions and intentions. This has severe consequences: Every rational being (and no being can be more rational than the human) has dignity. Later, the idea of “human rights” was derived from this. Moreover, every rational being has a legitimate interest in autonomy and self-determination. As a conclusion, freedom is the highest good: freedom from suffering and pain, freedom from outer power or force, freedom to decide how to live one’s life. However, one’s own freedom has a limit: the freedom of the others! Here, the “Golden rule” that is found in many cultures and societies and their Philosophies over the globe (also strongly in Confucianism) comes into play: “Don’t do to others what you don’t want to be done to you!”. A famous variation is Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative”: “Act as if your maxims should serve at the same time as a universal law.” Kant’s philosophical reflections have been so fundamental and influential that he can be considered the most important thinker of Europe. He is a central figure in the European Enlightenment movement and the essence of his findings found its way into many social institutions such as Democracy, the law-and-order system, or our modern idea of education. His famous categorical imperative as the core of his ethical system can be applied like this: When you consider doing a certain action you have to ask yourself: If the motivation (“maxim”) for this action would be a law (or allowed by law), would that be a world (or society, or state) I’d like to live in, or a world that would be “reasonable”? For example: Is “lying” a moral or immoral act? Can we imagine a society in which “lying” is allowed by law that works reasonably well? A rational person with a sufficiently clear mind would surely find that a society of liars could never work out well. Therefore, we conclude that lying is unethical. That means, as the ultimate conclusion, from our rationality (esp. the rational insight that we “have to do good” in order to keep social peace) and our free will (esp. the ability to decide what to do) we derive the duty to do “good”. This idea of “duty ethics” – the moral obligation to act morally – is known as “deontology”, with Immanuel Kant as its most prominent advocate. Again, here we have a slide that is so heavily laden with Philosophy that we would need a whole year regular lectures and still wouldn’t be able to understand it to the fullest. Myriads of Philosophers have analysed, debated, deconstructed and reconstructed Kant’s reasoning approach. It was criticised, refined and applied to many questions of daily life. Let’s try to see how we can exploit these ideas for reflection on nanomedicine – our example for an “application” of NT:


As we have learned before, nanomedical methods enable diagnosis and therapy on a molecular level of the disease. These new strategies to “solve the problem by its roots” goes along with a massive data generation about the patient’s individual health data. “Personalised medicine” has many advantages (higher efficacy, efficiency, mildness of the treatment, etc.), but has several implications for the ethical dimensions (or “values”) autonomy, freedom and privacy. First of all, we regard “safety” as a human right. When a new treatment method is still in its early stage, has a certain level of uncertainty and, therefore, goes along with certain risks, “safety” can’t be guaranteed. This is, of course, the case for almost all medical treatments: there is almost never a situation that has “no risk”. The question is: Where is the limit and who decides about that? From this perspective, the doctor-patient-relationship is affected: There are two major concepts, paternalism and informed consent. Ina paternalistic fashion, the doctor as “the expert” is trusted as the one who knows “what is right to do”. He decides, for example, what is a good treatment for a patient and tells him what he will do and what the patient has to do. The patient follows these instructions, trusting the doctor. In Taiwan, for several reasons, this model is still very widespread, but in Germany it wouldn’t work nowadays anymore. Here, patients prefer the idea of “informed consent”: The doctor is an “advisor” who explains the options and respective risks and advantages to the patient. The patient then, on the basis of this information, is in charge of deciding what will be done with him. For many common medical treatments this is possible, because the information that is given to the patient (the basis for his choice) is understandable and not too complex. This might be different for nanomedical treatment. As we have seen today, we need a basic course in biology, chemistry and physics to understand how nanomedical drug formulations work in the organism and turn the disease into a healthy state. Maybe even the doctor doesn’t fully understand how it works. The patient’s decision might, in the end, not be based on the information he got (no matter how convincing it was), but out of his irrational concerns about “Nano”, his insecurity and the feeling of “uncertain risk” he denies any nanomedical treatments. Can we imagine a situation in which we would favour a paternalistic approach in which the doctor simply “knows better” what is good for the patient? How do we solve the conflict with the patient’s right of freedom of choice and self-determination? In the European individualistic societies, autonomy is a fundamental value, maybe even more important than “freedom”! The second “big topic” that is discussed in Nanomedicine is the protection of the patient’s health data. In order to mix the perfect nano-drug formulation for the treatment of a tumour (you remember the idea of “targeted drug delivery” with certain agents in a nano-container that can find the site of the disease in the patient’s body) a huge amount of individual significant “fingerprint” data on genomic, proteomic, hormon information, etc. has to be collected. This information can be misused in the wrong hands. Employers might be interested in employees’ (or job applicants’) specific health data and the risk of future diseases (like arthritis). Health insurances want to know the likelihood of peoples’ future health problems and might reject clients. Here, the privacy of the patient is the ethical value that needs to be protected. For example, regulations and guidelines for newly established nanomedical treatments must include aspects of health data storage and access rules and procedures. A misuse of data might damage the reputation of nanomedicine so dramatically that it is has no future due to a rejection by patients. Then, the manifold advancements and benefits can’t be exploited either.From my perspective, these are the topics with the widest variety in cultural diversity. Deontology in the Kantian understanding is surely the predominant ethical reasoning principle in Europe and North America. Asian societies are based on different ideologies and philosophical worldviews, like Confucianism. Confucianism also has deontological elements, but it differs in the significant details since it is much less individualistic. Aspects of autonomy or privacy might be handled differently in Asian legislations, as we have seen, for example, by the more paternalistic doctor-patient-relationship characteristics. Let’s leave this huge topic for now and turn to the next example:


At the final stage of our nanoparticle’s lifecycle it must end up somewhere. Some types of nanoparticles might decay, fall apart or just transform into configurations that have no visible impact on environment or health. In a few cases the nanomaterials can be somehow recycled, which requires that it is known where they are. For many applications, especially in nanomedicine or some other releases into the environment, this is not known. You remember Hyperthermia, the brain cancer treatment: What happens with the iron oxide nanoparticles in the brain after the treatment? The inventor, Prof. Jordan, admitted that he and his team don’t know. Maybe they are transported somehow to the liver and are then metabolised and secreted. Maybe they agglomerate in the brain and slowly decay. It is almost impossible to trace these particles. In this section, we want to ask who or what needs to be taken into account when we think of protection from long term effects and uncertainty risks. The most confined viewpoint is “I only take care of myself!”. This is known as egocentrism and certainly not helpful for an ethical discussion. The next level would be a kind of “sociocentrism”: Members of a “society” (for example a nation) care about the members of this particular society and give them ethical relevance. This might work for a few conflict types, but certainly not for technology impacts with global dimension. Therefore, we start at the “mankind” level. Some might say, only the human sphere is important for us humans. We can reflect on ethical aspects only for mankind because other spheres (like animals, mountains, planets) can’t participate in the discourse, can’t express what they want, and wouldn’t understand what we conclude. Therefore, we have no choice but conducting ethical debates from the human point of view. We do Ethics only for human. The rest is beyond our capability and responsibility. This is called “anthropocentrism”. It doesn’t mean that animals, plants, the planet, the cosmos don’t matter to us! But if it does, we must understand it as a human interest! We have to treat dogs nicely for the sake of our own good, not for the sake of the dog! Kant, for example, pointed out that mistreatment of animals has negative impact on the personal character disposition. Violence against animals just forms a bad character. The suffering of the dog is not a point at all. The next level of “ethical relevance” is a pathocentric viewpoint: Every sentient being, at least every being that obviously feels pain and tries to escape from it, has a moral interest for its own sake. For some of you that might sound somehow “incomplete”. Why only those organisms that feel pain? What about the border cases where we just don’t recognise the expression of pain? Taking the feeling of pain as a criterion bears the danger of “speciesism”: Putting some species above others (same as “anthropocentrism” is a form of speciesism, putting mankind above other animals). If you think this is not valid, you might be a “biocentrist” and give all living organisms (including animals and plants, and maybe life forms of other planets) the status of being an “ethical entity” having an ethical value “for its own sake”. Some people argue that this is still incomplete: Also geological formations, mountains, landscapes, the whole planet with its ecosystem has an ethical value as such. This is an ecocentristic viewpoint. It is also possible to extend the ethical realm to the whole universe: everything counts in! Cosmocentrism or Holism is based on the idea that everything in the universe is connected and everything has its place. The harmony of “the whole” is, therefore, the fundamental value of all existence. Chinese and Indian Philosophy, especially Daoism (Laozi’s teachings) and Buddhism (Gautama’s teachings, fundamentally extended by Nagarjuna (Longshu)), are based on this holistic worldview. All these considerations come into play when we reflect on environmental impact of Nanotechnology. Do we only care about the well-being of mankind? Do we want to protect the environment because we understand that we, as the human race, need an environment that functions well? Or do we want to protect it because we believe that “Nature” has a value independent from mankind? Is it acceptable to take the pollution of a river into account as the prize for a few more jobs in a nearby nanomaterial factory? May we shoot polluted materials (like, for example, radioactive waste, or dangerous indestructible nanomaterials) to the moon, to Mars or into the sun to get rid of them, risking to pollute extraterrestrial places? These are questions of environmental justice.


Justice is the significant element in the ethical principle we know as “Contractualism”, analogue to what “outcome” is for Consequentialism or “duty” for deontology. The basic idea is that a “society” (whatever that is) agrees upon rules and codes of conduct, making a “contract of association”. In a situation in which you are forced to make an ethical decision, you apply this principle like this: In a thought experiment you imagine an assembly of the people who are affected by your decision, and you try to find out what they would agree upon as useful rule. A simple example: You live in a house with many apartments. At midnight you feel like listening to loud music. Is it OK to do so? You imagine a meeting of all tenants in which everyone expresses what they wish to have for a “good quality of life” in this house. Surely someone will mention “no loud noise in the middle of the night”, same as you might wish that other neighbours don’t block the entrance with their bicycles. It can be that such a meeting actually happened, but it is not necessary: an imaginary meeting in your fantasy is enough to let you know: It would be immoral to recklessly listen to loud music at midnight. Note the two levels of moral here: The act is immoral, but there is the additional moral obligation to follow the moral since the point where the insight comes to your awareness and enters the domain of intention and will. Here, contractualism touches the deontologic reasoning principle. Let’s see how it adds a little more to the reasoning procedure: Same as the “Golden rule” can be expressed in different ways, also principles of justice can have different expressions. A famous one is: “The person who is in charge of cutting the cake will be the last to get the remaining piece.”. Only under this condition we can expect a “fair” result. Most likely that person will cut all pieces in the same size. If the cutter is the first one to choose a piece, he might cut one big piece and several small ones. However, we can imagine situations in which “all pieces have the same size” is actually not the “fairest” result. In case there is a skinny starving poor child and a fat wealthy businessman, might it be fairer to give the skinny one a bigger piece, as in the justice principle “everyone gets his or her share by need or demand”? The Philosopher John Rawls suggested a “theory of justice” which is now widely taken as the theoretical foundation of contractualism: He added an element in the decision-making process that helps ensuring maximum fairness: When a group of people makes a decision over a rule (and this can happen either in an actual meeting or as a thought experiment, see above), each member of that group votes behind a “veil of ignorance”. Behind this veil they don’t know who they will be later in this group, that means they can’t predict how the new rule will affect them. Therefore, so the idea, they will make a decision that is still fair for the “weekest element” or “most disfavoured” in the group. Let me make an example: A four-membered family argues about who will choose the TV channel that they watch. Maybe there is a fight because the father believes that he is “the head of the family” and therefore he may choose the channel, but the mother doesn’t agree. The Kids insists that the “adult” movies they have to watch are boring and they want to choose the cartoon channel which is more interesting. How can this conflict be solved? We imagine that all four have to vote for a rule (How will the TV channel be chosen?) while they don’t know if later on the couch they will be father, mother, son or daughter. Since the father doesn’t know that he is “the father”, he would not vote for a rule like “The father as head of the family always decides!”, because from his “neutral” point of view that would be unfair. Maybe now they would agree upon this: In the afternoon until 8pm the Kids can choose the channel with the son and daughter taking turns, and after 8pm the father (on weekends) and the mother (monday to friday) get the remote control. This meets everybody’s interest and is acceptable by everyone. They not only agree upon this rule, but also upon accepting the rule under all means. After taking off the veil of ignorance, nobody is justified to complain or reject the rule that they agreed upon as “just”. In this example, the “group” or “society” was the four member of this family. They didn’t care about neighbours or visitors or their dog, so we can call it a “familycentrism”, maybe. The bigger the “group” participating in such a decision-making process is, the more complex the consequences of the “veil of ignorance” are! Back to the impact of nanoparticles onto the environment or onto a patient in a nanomedical treatment. Imagine this situation: A doctor is convinced that a certain new nanosized drug delivery system works well but has a few unpredictable risks though. Shall he inject it into the patient? He can try to imagine making the decision with that veil of ignorance, not knowing if he is the doctor or the patient, or in other words: If he was the patient, would he inject this nano-formulation into himself? If not, he would also better not treat that patient with it. Another more complex example: As a CEO of a nano-fabricating company you have the option to buy cheap land for a new factory, but it is at the edge of a National Park and a river passes by that ground and on through the forest. You know that groundwater was polluted by your company’s activities at other places. Would it be right to build another factory here, in this delicate zone? You can again put on the veil of ignorance: Now you are not sure if later you are still that CEO making more profit, but you could also be a nearby villager who wants to get a job in this new factory, or a park ranger dealing with pollution problems or a fish in that river, or the landscape that this scenery is embedded in. And here we close the circle with the previous slide: Who do we consider a “member of the decision-making group”? Only human beings? Could, in this imaginary procedure, animals, plants, mountains, planets or galaxies be equipped with a voting right? It might sound absurd, but I believe it is not only possible but even obligatory to take animals’ or even landscapes’ or the universe’s “opinion” into account – at least as far as we can reasonably predict that “opinion” behind our “veil of ignorance”. Also note, please, that the final decision is not necessarily different with different constitutions of the “society” that we include in our thought experiment. Also without adding the biosphere or the cosmos into the circle of ethically relevant entities we (the CEO, the villagers, the politicians) can come to the conclusion that it would be “right” to protect the environment by refraining from building the factory here. The question is more: What do we give a value for its own sake? Nanotechnology with its big impact onto the environment somehow forces us to reflect this question in order to clarify our viewpoints to make the proper decisions in governance and policy-making.


We jump to the beginning of the life cycle: The planning and design phase, in which the scientific and technological idea is born and the “route” is drawn. At this stage – before any experiment is done and before any product sketch is illustrated – technology assessment (TA) and ELSI research start analysing and debating the development. We have learned that TA is a highly interactive, interdisciplinary and communicative endeavour – you remember the exchange of viewpoints concerning “risk”, for example. Many stakeholders contribute their arguments and opinions. This makes TA a perfect example for an “applied discourse”. Conducting a discourse in “the right way” is not a trivial thing! There are linguistic difficulties, structural and formal factors, psychological and social obstacles. German Philosopher and Sociologist Jürgen Habermas (in parts together with his colleague Karl-Otto Apel) conceptualized the “ideal discourse”. The most important characteristics of an ideal discourse are these:

  • All participants are using the same linguistic expressions in the same way.

  • No relevant argument is suppressed or excluded by the participants.

  • No force except that of the better argument is exerted.

  • All the participants are motivated only by a concern for the better argument.

  • Everyone would agree to the universal validity of the claim that is concluded.

  • Everyone capable of speech and action is entitled to participate, and everyone is equally entitled to introduce new topics or express attitudes, needs or desires.

  • No validity claim is exempt in principle from critical evaluation in argumentation.

Certainly, no perfectly “ideal” discourse can ever be achieved. This doesn’t mean it is not worth trying to get close to it. Habermas claimed that Ethics is always the product of communication between people with different opinion. Therefore, on the basis of an “ideal discourse”, the outcome of such a discourse is most likely what we can regard as “morally right” or “good”. Some doubt that this concept of “discourse ethics” counts as an “ethical principle” like consequentialism or deontology, and it is true that substantial parts of Habermas’ theoretical considerations are based on a Kantian deontology. However, for practical discourses in the arena of stakeholder discussions as in TA/ELSI approaches, this reasoning strategy is easily applicable and can be exploited for a more efficient and fruitful debate conduct. Let me give you an example that is often found in the debate on Nanotechnology:


A frequently expressed concern about Nanotechnology (and in Biotechnology and Genetics) is this: Manipulation of matter at this scale and using it for modifying the constitution of human and Nature is like “Playing God”. It is “not natural”. Arguments of this type are laden with difficulties. Terms like “Nature” and “God” require careful reasoning and definition in order to fulfil the condition of being logic and universally valid. The claim that something is “natural” and something else is not and, therefore, not “good” is in most cases a “naturalistic fallacy”: It lacks the proper normative premise that explains why “natural” means “good”, or why “not natural (not found in the natural environment)” necessarily means “not good”. Religious arguments bear the danger of a certain dogmatism: It is based on the foundation of belief in an entity like God that is not further questioned. Here we face the risk of a “dead end argument”: Claiming atheistically that “there is no God like the (mono-)theistic religions believe” kills the debate and is as dogmatic as the religious viewpoint. Certainly, in our modern enlightened world secular viewpoints are taken more seriously and are prioritised over theological arguments. The more “reasonable”, “rational” or “logically valid” argument will always “win” over the dogmatic (“God told us! No more discussion necessary!”), traditional (“We always did it like this!”) or superstitious (“If we do this, great misery will fall upon us!”) arguments. Let’s see what that means for an “ideal discourse”: We have seen that all viewpoints should have be given the chance of being expressed without any restrictions. The same goes for counter-arguments. Many ethics commissions that debate ethical implications of Nanotechnology (for example nanomedicine) involve a representative from a church (as a social institution and promoter of morality), for example a priest or an academic theologist. He knows that if he reasons his viewpoints with “God”, other participants will most likely not accept it. If he remains silent because of lack of confidence, because of pressure or a priori denial of his arguments, it is not an ideal debate. He should be given the chance to state his point of view, and then others can respond to that with their point of view. The opposing arguments must then be reasoned and compared on the basis of the goals that are to be achieved. It could be, for certain discourse constitutions, that a religious argument is the strongest. The ideal situation is that always “the better argument” wins: the more logic one, the better informed one, the more consistent and efficient, goal-oriented one, and not the most opportunistic, the most influential, the one expressed by the most respected or powerful participant, or the one that is most popular. The closer the discourse is to the “ideal”, the more it is ensured that the conclusions of the discussion are the “ethically favoured” ones.


Let me summarise my reflections: With this 5-stage symbolic life cycle of a Nanoparticle I tried to explain both the ethical theories and the ethical implications of Nanotechnology. I introduced virtue ethics to elaborate virtues for “good scientific practive” and a science ethos in the research and investigation phase. In this phase, ethical implications are mostly a case for profession ethics (“how to do one’s job well”) and research ethics (“how to conduct responsible research”). I exploited the example of risk-benefit-calculations in the industrialisation and commercialisation phase of NT in order to explain consequentialism as ethical reasoning principle. Here, the debate is fed mostly by arguments from business ethics. I condensed the whole theory of deontology into one slide to apply it to ethical reflections on nanomedicine as an example for the application and consumption of NT-related products and devices. The aspects mentioned here are mostly a topic in medical ethics. Bioethical considerations and arguments from environmental ethics were taken to explain the “centrisms” that underlie worldviews concerning environmental justice. I used contractualistic models to bring light into debates of long term effects of nanomaterials in the environment or the human body. Last but not least, we have just elaborated guidelines for an “ideal discourse” as it is attempted to achieve in TA/ELSI of NT. I have shown how it is applied to dealing with arguments like that of Naturalism. This idea of ethics is a topic especially in S&T ethics, but also in political ethics. Again, I want you to keep in mind that these are all just examples! We can, of course, reflect on “good scientific practice” on the basis of a theory of justice instead of taking a virtue ethics approach. We can apply deontological arguments to contradict religious arguments or to reason certain conclusions from risk-benefit-calculations. As I tried to show with the story at the beginning of this part: In most of the cases, there is more than just one “right” answer. The weighing of arguments and to facilitate a solution-oriented discourse is the main competence of Ethicists. Maybe you can understand now that the discussion of NT-related ethical issues is not a simple endeavour but a still ongoing process. These are the main messages that I wanted to deliver to you:

  • There are different ethical theories based on different principles (for example virtue, duty, outcome, justice, discourse).
  • These theories are applied when discussing ethical and social issues of Nanotechnology. Common „values“ are safety, autonomy, privacy, freedom, justice, fairness, responsibility.
  • Ethical aspects of Nanotechnology can be found in all stages of the development, from design, research, product development to application, consumption and disposal.
  • The stakeholder debate on Nanotechnology is an example for a „practical discourse“ and should follow the concept of an „ideal discourse“.

Why do I think all this matters to you? Ethical reasoning is an important skill in this world with growing complexity. Whatever your future job may be, you will sooner or later find yourself in a situation in which you have to convince your boss or a competitor or a co-worker of something that you think is important. Nanotechnology is a “hot topic” now. In 10 years it will be another technology. Maybe robotics? Transhumanism? Global energy solutions? Space travel? Or maybe simply a political discussion of the education system, the national health insurance system, environmental pollution, a new nuclear power plant, independence from China? Remember: the better argument wins! I hope you can take a little from this lecture to find your personal strategy to give convincing reasons why it is YOUR argument that is the best one!

Finally, let me give you a few literature hints in case you want more input through further reading on this topic:


For a simple introduction to NT, I recommend “Nanotechnology for Dummies“, a great book that even my grandmother can understand! If you want the full blast of Nanosciences and research, the 2500 pages “Handbook” of Nanotechnology is the book of choice. For insights into the social and political aspects of NT, I recommend “Nanotechnology – Assessment and perspectives” or Allhoff’s and Lin’s “Nanotechnology and Society“. Geoffrey Hunt addresses more ethical and legal aspects in “Nanotechnology – Risks, Ethics and Law“. An elaborated debate on Nanoethics can be taken from all the contributions to the Springer Journal “Nanoethics” that publishes 20-30 research articles and essays per year since 2007 (available from this webpage when connected through the university’s servers – NCHU has a licence for this journal!).

For “ethical laymen” – those who didn’t study Philosophy or Ethics – the ethical implications of science and technology (but also other, maybe all, life aspects) can sometimes be grasped more easily from narratives, that means from stories and literature and their underlying moral messages. Here is a list of books and movies that include Nanotechnology and its issues:


  • Michael Crichton – Prey (2002) [here]

  • Stel Pavlou – Decipher (2001) [here]

  • Neal Stephenson – The Diamond Age (1995) [here]

  • Greg Bear – Blood Music (1985) [here]


  • Terminator [here]

  • The Day the Earth Stood Still [here]

  • Ghost in the Shell (Stand Alone Complex) [here]

For questions, critique, comments, feedback, please don’t hesitate to contact me by email: janmehlich ‘at’ gmx ‘dot’ de. Thank you for your attention!

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