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Arizona State University awarded $6.5 million to study nanotechnology and society

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $6.5 million to the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (CNS-ASU) to continue its work regarding the societal aspects of nanotechnology for another five years. CNS-ASU was founded in 2005 when NSF made its first five-year award of $6.2 million to Arizona State University to create the center. These awards are part of NSF's initiative to support research and education on nanotechnology and social change, as well as educational and public outreach activities, and international collaborations.

In 2001, the federal government established the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which identifies "responsible development" as one of four strategic goals for nanotechnology research. This award to CNS-ASU reflects NSF's commitment to investigating the societal aspects of this promising but uncertain technology.

"As technology moves forward into the nano sphere and across thousands of applications, we need new tools to help guide decision making to ensure the best and highest net impact of use," said ASU president Michael M. Crow. "CNS will focus on this critical set of complex questions and will provide a new level of systems thinking with regard to these future technologies and their use."

Nanotechnology allows controlling matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Societal benefits of using the science to create new materials, devices for medicine, electronics and energy production could be transformative. But creating such things through molecular manipulation raises not only health and safety risks but ethical and legal questions as well.

In their first five years, CNS-ASU researchers have worked side by side with scientists, engineers, social scientists, scholars and decision makers to combine research, training and engagement to develop a new approach to governing emerging nanotechnologies. They have developed new knowledge and tools to increase the capacity for social learning that informs about the available choices in decision making, and to engage in anticipatory governance of nanotechnology -- the ability of society and institutions to seek and understand a variety of inputs to manage emerging technologies while such management is still possible.

"The biggest question for the Center," said David Guston, director and principal investigator at CNS-ASU and professor of politics and global studies, "is how far anticipatory governance can take us, not only in guiding societal research but in assuring the responsible development of nanotechnologies." Guston also is the co-director of ASU's Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO), which is CNS-ASU's parent organization.

Under the renewal, CNS-ASU will continue its collaborations with partner institutions Georgia Tech and University of Wisconsin to further two types of integrated research programs. First, its programs in "real-time technology assessment" (RTTA) a social science tool that relies on understanding the social, moral, political and economic dynamics of nanotechnologies work to understand the evolving dynamics of the nano enterprise, discern the changing perspectives of the public and scientists about nanotechnologies, and develop techniques to foster deliberation on future nanotechnology applications and integration of social and humanistic perspectives into nano-scale science and engineering.

The second set of programs are thematic research clusters (TRCs), which pursue fundamental knowledge on particular nano-and-society themes. The first TRC, continuing from the earlier award, focuses on issues in equity, equality and responsibility in the development of nanotechnologies. Under the renewal, CNS-ASU will initiate a new TRC, "Urban Design, Materials and the Built Environment," which will launch and complete a problem-oriented stakeholder analysis for the creation, dissemination and sustainable use of nanotechnologies in urban environments.

"It is particularly important," Guston said, "to locate nanotechnologies in the city because cities are home to most of humanity and are also focal points of complex systems for such things as energy, water and transportation that will be sites for nanotechnological innovation." Assessing how nanotechnologies may or may not contribute to the sustainability of these systems in an urban context is the primary goal of this new program.

Under the renewal, CNS-ASU will also continue to pursue formal and informal educational opportunities and build new capacities among a broad array of stakeholders and the public. CNS-ASU provides: undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral education and research training; opportunities for K-12 teacher training, assistance and curricular development; engaging events for the public, such as science museum informal education and monthly Science Cafs; and practitioner training, such as its earlier development of piloted training modules in the ethical and societal implications of nanotechnology for scientists and engineers.

A sister Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara, also is being renewed by NSF with a $6.1 million grant. "These Centers play a pivotal role in understanding and anticipating the potential societal impacts of nanotechnology and engaging multiple stakeholders in discussions about the future of emerging technologies," said Myron Gutmann, NSF assistant director of Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences. "They are truly interdisciplinary centers, spanning the social, natural and engineering sciences."


Contact: Cathy Arnold
Arizona State University

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