Integrating ethical considerations into funding decisions for emerging nanotechnologies

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An imperative to consider the ethical, legal and social implications of nanotechnology (NT) has been given much general attention, accompanied by speculation on the potential benefits and harms, calls for better research regarding societal implications, and the promulgation of early guidelines by the Foresight Institute and others. NT and related technologies are developing in an uncertain and rapidly paced environment, within the dual context of intense global competition and public debate over technological advances such as stem cell research and human cloning. Scientists, industry leaders and policy makers are challenged to balance the realities of rapid advancement and economic competition with a prudent consideration of the likely impacts. Three key decision points exist with respect to any emerging technology, including whether or not to fund, transfer knowledge or regulate. This paper focuses on the first point and proposes a practical framework for integrating ethical considerations into the proposal and decision making process for research and development funding. The framework addresses four complicating factors that may impede progress in our understanding and response to the societal implications of NT. By redefining the role of ethics, the framework also stimulates consideration of core issues including public impact and acceptance, values-based risk assessment, and shared accountability for anticipating and responding to inevitable societal disruptions.

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