University of Delaware
Ismat Shah, left, and Tom Powers will host conferences on ethics in nanoscience and technology in Lahore and Dubai.

The ethics of the very small

UD profs bring discussion of nanoethics to Pakistan and Dubai

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1:26 p.m., April 18, 2011--Two UD professors, Ismat Shah and Tom Powers, will host two international conferences on nanoethics in November, stopping first in Lahore, Pakistan, and then in Dubai.

Shah is a professor of materials science and engineering as well physics and astronomy. Powers is a professor of philosophy and directs the Science, Ethics, and Public Policy Program at the University. The two combined their interests and expertise to examine the ethical implications of emerging nanotechnology and will be discussing the various risks and benefits that arise with nanoscience and engineering at the conferences.

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Nanoscience is the science of the very small—a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Nanoparticles are so small that they can only be viewed with electron microscopes. Researchers can re-engineer elements that occur naturally, such as carbon, so that they become new substances, which have properties that are very different from their original properties.

Shah initially won a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Office of International Science and Engineering (OISE) in 2008 to support undergraduate education in nanoscience and nanotechnology related to alternative energy. As part of that grant, Shah and Powers teamed up to teach a course at UD called “Ethics in Nanoscience.” In conjunction with the class, the two will hold a campuswide workshop on nanoethics aimed at UD undergraduate and graduate students on April 26.

Now Shah and Powers have received further funding from OISE to host the conference in Pakistan -- where Shah grew up -- on Nov. 14-17, followed by another iteration of the program in Dubai on Nov. 18-19.

Shah and Powers believe that it is important for researchers and experts in the area to understand the potential consequences of experimenting with materials whose effects are largely unknown.

“The problem is that we get so carried away with the possibilities that we don’t think about the probabilities, which are more ethical issues. We are making nanomaterials quite casually. If I am not an ethical scientist, there could be a lot of damage done,” says Shah.

Powers agrees, and notes that “collaborations between scientists, engineers, and ethicists on this topic are increasing and could help to head off problems that have derailed other new technologies, such as genetically modified foods.”

Products made with nanotechnology are already available in the marketplace, such as titanium dioxides in sunscreen. The effects of nanotechnology have the potential to be groundbreaking and very profitable for medicine, alternative energy sources, and so much more. But what are the consequences of using this technology? What becomes of nanoparticles that are released into the environment? The conferences in Pakistan and Dubai will focus on these types of ethical questions.

“There is a lot of science that people know and a lot of ethics that other people know, but they don’t know anything about each other’s technology or methodology,” explains Shah. “Philosophers need to be educated on the science part and vice versascientists and engineers don’t know as much about the ethical considerations. The idea for the conference is to educate both groups.”

Article by Kate Sadowski

Photo by Evan Krape

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