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The recently concluded three-year DEEPEN project, organized by Durham University in the UK and funded by the European Commission, aimed to clarify some of the ethical and moral implications of further research on the topic of nanotechnology. Breaking new ground, the project's final report constitutes the summation of the work of the past few years. A clear directive was brought forward by DEEPEN's contributing researchers - including Professor Phil Macnaghten and Dr. Matthew Kearnes of Durham University's Institute for Hazard and Risk Research - and its message is intended for any nanotechnology researchers working today: get a strong ethical stance sorted before moving any further.
The worries and anxieties discussed in this report centered mainly around the fact that nanotechnology research is moving at an extremely rapid rate. There is a sense of "impending disaster" borne out of a loss of surety over what is "means to be human" and the consequences for "loss of personal identity". While there was a general acceptance that research in nanotechnology had a strong future financially - with global funding over 1200 percent higher than it was in 1995 - there was a concern that "hype" over the research topic was hindering "productive knowledge transfer".
All was not grim, however. The project highlighted some important positive aspects to nanotechnology research, including the potential for enormous and scalable advances in medical and diagnostic sciences. There was also general goodwill towards the possibility of nanotechnology playing a major role in improving individuals' quality of life in a more liberal sense, as well as the opportunities the science could afford energy systems research.
The report mentioned that DEEPEN participants' predictions of the future tended to be "dystopic" unless a greater focus on public good was imposed. Participants were often concerned that over-focus on consumer goods would be a natural extension of academic research in nanotechnology, and this could heighten the rich/poor divide in certain societies. Despite these concerns, there was a consensus that drawing up a list of recommendations for approaching the management of global nanotechnology research may "underestimate the complexity" of research government.
The news about consumer goods is of particular note to manufacturers in the technology industry, who are seeking the kinds of advances that nanotechnology could afford. Many manufacturers are approaching sustainability and social responsibility as central to their mission. Dell titled their FY 2011 sustainability report ‘It's Good Business to Do Good', and they are focusing on manufacturing a variety of products like all in one computers that save consumers energy, space, and money. Lenovo highlighted issues of sustainability and in their FY 2011 report ‘Doers make the world better'. Indeed, Lenovo recently appointed a Senior Vice President, Peter Hortensius, as chief sustainability executive, and Dell was named Newsweek's 2010 Greenest Company in America. This kind of practice could provide an antidote to the dystopic predictions of the DEEPEN project; by focussing on the wider global impact of any consumer brand, values can be aligned with those in the ‘public' - or here, ‘academic' - sector. This way, the research drive for enhancement of consumer products need not interfere with the tremendous prospects for nanotechnology in the medical and diagnostic sectors.
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