All technology has benefits and risks — and even scientists working at the most theoretical level in a lab must consider how their research and development (R&D) might have downstream impacts on the public and environment.
The Social and Ethical Implications (SEI) research program at the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Nanofabrication Facility (TNF) conducts research and trains researchers working at the nanoscale to better understand downstream impacts.
What is nanotechnology? Nanotechnology refers to any technology that is conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1–100 nanometers. The size of a nanoparticle equals 1/100,000 of the diameter of a human hair.
Why study the SEI of nanotechnology here at UT Austin? TNF is one of 16 sites in the U.S. funded by the National Science Foundation’s National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure. Its purpose is to provide academic, private, and government researchers with fabrication, instrumentation, and expertise related to nanoscale science, engineering, and technology. This means hundreds of researchers from inside and outside the state of Texas visit TNF to work on the equipment housed in the cleanrooms. Put simply, this is where the majority of nano R&D happens in the U.S.
Facility users are trained to use the specialized (and costly) instruments housed in TNF cleanrooms. Since SEI work began at TNF in 2016, users are also trained on how to think like an ethical leader.
What is an Ethical Leader? Ethical leaders go beyond ensuring the lab is safe, the data is accurate, and that credit is given where it is due – they actively encourage their R&D teams to think critically about the societal and ethical implications of their collaborative work. What happens if the technology fails? What if it succeeds and is added to a medical device that it implanted in the human body? How might the technology affect the environment if it gets into the water supply?
In sum, SEI@TNF trains researchers to think about implications of their R&D at both the individual and collective (workplace, societal, environmental) levels.