Ethical, Legal, and Societal Issues

The potential societal, ethical, and legal implications of nanotechnology are an important NNI issue.

Responsible development of nanotechnology is one of the four goals of the NNI and central to advancing the other three (specifically, continuing a world-class R&D program; fostering the transfer of new nanotechnologies into products for commercial and public benefit; and educating the workforce, engaging the public, and sustaining an effective nanotechnology R&D infrastructure).  

An important component of responsible development is the consideration of the ethical, legal, and societal implications of nanotechnology. How nanotechnology research and applications are introduced into society; how transparent decisions are; how sensitive and responsive policies are to the needs and perceptions of the full range of stakeholders; and how ethical, legal, and social issues are addressed will determine public trust and the future of innovation driven by nanotechnology.

The NNI is committed to fostering the development of a community of experts on ethical, legal, and societal issues (ELSI) related to nanotechnology and to building collaborations among ELSI communities, such as consumers, engineers, ethicists, manufacturers, nongovernmental organizations, regulators, and scientists. These stakeholder groups will consider potential benefits and risks of research breakthroughs and provide their perspectives on new research directions. With its industry stakeholders, the NNI will also develop information resources for ethical and legal issues related to intellectual property and ethical implications of nanotechnology-based patents and trade secrets. 

Addressing ELSI in a proactive manner is critical to ensure public trust in nanotechnology and to promote innovation and commercialization of NEPs. The first step in addressing ELSI is to build a comprehensive knowledge base that includes a compendium of ELSI experts, results from societal dimensions research, workshop reports, patents, and best practices to approaching ELSI issues. Such a knowledge base relies on support from an enhanced ELSI infrastructure composed of networks, repositories, and centers for advancing the collection, dissemination, and preservation of societal dimensions research on nanotechnology for both the research community and public audiences. To increase stakeholder awareness and education concerning ELSI issues, appropriate and relevant ELSI knowledge will be disseminated to myriad stakeholders having varying levels of ELSI knowledge. Expanded opportunities and new approaches for deliberative interactions among stakeholder groups, which are numerous and diverse, will be developed and implemented.

To help explore the ELSI issues, NNI agencies are supporting the two centers for nanotechnology in society noted in the "Related Resources" box, and where possible, are incorporating ELSI components into their new nanotechnology R&D programs.

See also: Environmental, Health, and Safety IssuesNanotechnology Environmental and Health Implications Working Group