The Human Centred Approach to Bionanotechnology – Ethical Considerations

Gonçalo Jorge Morais da Costa, Nuno Miguel Araújo da Silva and Nuno Sotero Alves da Silva


Innovation traditionally was viewed as a linear process: from basic research to technology development and on to test/evaluation, demonstration, deployment, commercialization, and ultimately, market penetration. And perhaps, if successful, market saturation, obsolescence, and finally replacement. Human (and social) factors- needs, desires, demands, behavior- were considered either not at all or intuitively, anecdotally, coincidentally, mechanically, and often reactively. Innovation was driven, first, by hard science, engineering, and production, with marketing and sales trailing behind like army camp followers.

The primary challenge to promulgating a more human-centered approach to managing and accounting for innovation then is this:

  • can we encourage innovation that adds net social value? That is, whose benefits clearly outweigh its costs?
  • at the same time, can we deter- or at least not encourage- innovation that serves malicious ends or that poses grave threats to humanity?

In that sense, such challenge is clearly bounded to the field of bionanotechnology… But, how can we define bionanotechnology? Through out the literature review it is possible to acknowledge that is a combination of biotechnology and nanotechnology; however, it seem to us that such definition is clearly insufficient due to the nature of the possible ethical and moral dilemmas that can arise. In fact, even specialists from biotechnology and nanotechnology plead the thought that such combination of concepts does not reflect this new field of research, as the following definitions demonstrates…

The United Kingdom Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council defines bionanotechnology as a multi-disciplinary field that sits at the interface between engineering and the biological and physical sciences, while the OECD (2005), defines it as an area that covers the interface between physics, biology, chemistry and the engineering sciences.

The previous ideas impose a condition that incorporates two levels of analysis:

  • what is biotechnology? Which are its applications? What ethical and moral dilemmas arise?
  • what is nanotechnology? Which are its applications? What ethical and moral dilemmas arise?

Biotechnology can be broadly defined as using organisms or their products for commercial purposes. As such, (traditional) biotechnology has been practices since he beginning of records history. It has been used into food, crops or domestic animals; but, recent developments in molecular biology have given biotechnology a new meaning, a new prominence, and a new potential. It is (modern) biotechnology that has captured the attention of the public.

One example of modern biotechnology is genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is the process of transferring individual genes between organisms or modifying the genes in an organism to remove or add a desired trait or characteristic. It seems certain that a major focus of biotechnology over the next two decades will be on the area of pharmacogenetics and pharmacogenomics, or individualized medicine.

However, despite the political rhetoric and normative discourses that claim the prospective of such technology, due to immeasurable institutional inflexibility (insecure career paths, unfair evaluation, need of longer training), the truth is that the conventional wisdom concerning its benefits is not supported by systematic evidence and remains poorly understood (Weingart and Stehr, 2000; Bruce et al. 2004; Schild and Sorlin, 2005). Although since the 1990s there has been an outstanding output of new empirical studies to add to the more plentiful conceptual and normative approaches adopted in the past, there is a worrying lack of consensus even about how to measure cross-disciplinarity (Bordons, Morillo and Gómes, 2004). Another crucial aspect that still needs to be evaluated is the costs and risks of failure regarding its ethical and moral dilemmas.

On the other hand, nanotechnology is the creation of functional materials, devices, and systems through control of matter on the nanometer length scale and the exploitation of novel properties and phenomena developed at that scale (Bonsor, 2002). A scientific and technical revolution has begun that is based upon the ability to systematically organize and manipulate matter on the nanometer length scale.

Through out the literature it is possible to find several examples of nanotechnology applications: giant magnetoresistance in nanocrystalline materials, nanolayers with selective optical barriers, dispersions with optoelectronic properties, chemical and bio-detectors; advanced drug delivery systems (blood nanobots), chemical-mechanical polishing with nanoparticle slurries, new generation of lasers, nanostructured catalysts, and systems on a chip. Like the robots we use to build cars and the construction equipment we use to build skyscrapers, nanomachines will enable us to create a plethora of goods as well as to increase our engineering abilities to the limits of the physical world (Institute of Molecular Manufacturing, 2003).

Regarding the possible and moral dilemmas of such technology it is usual that philosophers, ethicists and many scientists frequently speak as such objects will exist in the very near future, but in fact they already exist which clearly creates a policy vacuum. In spite of such vision, some science fictions may help us cope the ethical and moral dilemmas that such technology embraces, like the novel of Michael Flynn, “The Nanotech Chronicles”. By masterly arranging six characters with different moral positions, for each of which we find almost convincing arguments, Flynn prompts his readers to reflect on moral issues and to solve moral conflicts.

In conclusion, the answers to obtain in this paper are: what is bionanotechnology? Which are its applications? What ethical and moral dilemmas arise? And, does the level of ethical and moral dilemmas engage the level of the two previous fields of research, is a sum of them, or imposes new challenges?


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