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Social questions

Social issues are matters which affect many or all members of society and are usually considered to be problems or controversies, often related to moral values. They are big issues such as poverty, violence, pollution, human rights etc.

In relation to nano, they are not really about the technology itself, but the implications of some of its uses and often apply to many new and existing technologies. Some of the wide ranging questions currently being posed include:

Who's in charge?

Who and what are the driving forces of research and innovation? In the early stages it is scientists and the those who fund them - but how are their priorities decided?

As developments begin to take shape, all sorts of other groups become important. Because nanotechnologies cover such a broad sweep, who’s in charge depends on the field.

In the case of food, cosmetics, textiles and computing, it is companies and corporate interests which dominate nanotechnology development.

In medicine and energy it’s Government, public sector and the scientific community. In surveillance, it’s the IT industry and the security services. And so on. Each of these groups has their own priorities and dominant driving values.

One of the social questions is how far do these dominant values reflect the values of wider society, or just the elites? How far should citizens have the power to call those developments to account? And at what stage, and how and who pay for that engagement?

Who really benefits and what do we really need?

Do the claimed benefits of a new field of technology actually improve the lot of most people, or just a few of the richer people or those selling the technology?

In areas like medicine, energy and environment, few would disagree with the potential benefits for a large number of people, but in other areas, maybe not? Some people think that despite all the ingenuity of scientists and engineers, do we need to step back and ask ‘Do we actually need what is being offered?’.

Who says what is ‘needed’? Faced with a global issues like child malnutrition, hunger and climate change, should we go on creating a consumer demand for fun things in rich countries like ours?

'Haves and have nots' - is there a nano divide?

Both in global terms and within countries, the gap between rich and poor is wide. Even if only half the future potential of nanotechnology that is talked about actually comes to pass, one of the big questions is whether it will create a nano-divide - between those who can benefit from the innovations and those who cannot afford them, or cannot access them.

Even in medicine, where there is so much potential, can the NHS afford ever more remarkable therapies, enabled by developments in nanotechnology, let alone developing countries? At some point in future, will some of these be only available if you can pay?

Developing countries may not have the means or the capacity to take advantage of nanotechnologies and, as with other technologies, may get ‘left behind’. What do we do about that? Does it matter?

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