Research probes nano ethics, education, and environmental impacts

“Science fiction writers have probably done more to make the general public aware of nanotechnology than anyone else… Of course, they have used the new technology to inspire fear, because it’s entertaining, but it is also a way to educate the public.” She may have laughed when making this statement, but Dr. Marinelle Ringer, CINS Grant / Technical Writer, wasn’t joking.

Relatively speaking, nanotechnology is a new scientific tool – a tool that statistics tell us only 30% of the population truly understands. With this novelty comes a need for explanation and guidance as the science develops.

“Nanotechnology affects everybody now, and it will affect them more in the future,” said Dr. Ringer. “My goal is to investigate the pressing social, educational, and environmental issues. In addition to the scientific work going on here at CINS, we are exploring the philosophical, sociological, and political ramifications of nanotechnology, and I don’t know of another center of this kind looking into these issues.”

One of the key problems Dr. Ringer’s research addresses is the lack of regulation as nanotechnology products enter the marketplace. There are countless products currently on the market that utilize nanomaterials in some form, ranging from stain-free fabrics to sunscreen and paint to sports equipment. However, there are very few regulations regarding the use, labeling, and packaging of nanomaterials in commercial products.

“Scientists have been urging the study of the potential toxicity of nanomatierals and the implications,” Ringer said. “But federal agencies responsible for ensuring public health and safety have been slow to act.” She noted that the lack of regulation wasn’t just within the U.S., but is a global issue.

This lack of regulation segues into the subject of nanoethics. Dr. Ringer suggests that measures need to be taken now, in the “early” stages of nanotechnology, to ensure that certain socioeconomic groups are not left behind as the science evolves.

“Unless individuals living in the developing world become involved in the debate now, there is little chance that their interests will be considered after the technology has become viable,” she said. “I am particularly concerned with ethical implications, given that technology in general is available only to those who can afford it.”

While nano-applications for water purification and solar energy are undeniably beneficial to society at large, medical applications of nanotechnology – including disease control and treatment – may only be provided to the wealthy, widening the gap between socioeconomic classes.

This expanding gap may also be felt in the area of education. Because many K-12 science teachers lack a degree in STEM subjects, Dr. Ringer urges colleges and universities to take responsibility for preparing future K-12 teachers to educate their students on STEM subjects.

“By providing professional development for current teachers on subjects such as nanotechnology, we can enable STEM teachers to inspire students to view science as immediately relevant to their daily lives and, over time, worth pursuing as a major and a career,” she said.

In her time at CINS, Dr. Ringer has presented at conferences and published two scholarly articles: “Toward an Integrated K-12 Science Curriculum Using Nanotechnology: A Note of Hope in the State of the Union” in the Proceedings of the International Conference on Nanotechnology in Toronto, Canada; and “A Nano Necessity: Global Ethics for Human Enhancement” in the International Journal of Organizational Diversity. Her latest study probes nanotechnology and the environment, and aims to survey the potential risks, as well as the benefits, of nano applications in the marketplace.

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