Shaping the Future of Society with Technology

[JAMEY] All of us have the ability to shape the future of our society through the technology decisions that we make and that our society makes. [LISA] I’m Lisa Friedersdorf. Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. Herewith me is Jamey Wetmore. He works to develop ways for scientists, policymakers, and others to think about the future of technology in society. So Jamey, why is it important to have so many different perspectives involved in nanotechnology research?



[JAMEY] Thanks for starting with the question I think which defines the importance of nanotechnology almost. So I think the people who work in nanotechnology, we’re all trying to solve problems. We see things in the world that we think could be better and we want to make them better. And I think what we’ve realized over time is that there is no one single discipline that’s going to solve this world’s problems. It’s going to take a lot of people from all over the place, working together, sharing their knowledge to help us actually have the innovation we need to solve these problems. And I come at it from a slightly different view of a lot of people because I’m sort of trained more as a social scientist.


I have a little bit of technical background, but what I really focus in is how do we think about the ways in which technology and people interact? There’s not too many of us that work in nanotechnology doing that kind of work, but I think more and more people in nanotechnology are realizing the importance of bringing in a wide variety of perspectives not just different science and engineering perspectives, but social science, and even humanities perspectives, to really begin to think about the big picture in ways that we can solve those problems.



[LISA] So from your perspective, does technology drive society or is it the other way around? Actually, I was going to say I teach entire classes on this, but I guess I’ve written entire books on this. I think it depends on your perspective. So I am of the camp that says from the very very beginning is human decisions that drive everything. I’m not comfortable with the idea that machines are the ones telling human beings what to do. And I do think that anybody can be involved in shaping the future of technology through their decisions. But I does also believe that there are a small group of people and a small group of organizations that have a profound impact on the technologies we end up with. And so their decisions can have a significant impact on the direction of society. And if you’re a sort of an average member of the public, and actually even scientists and engineers I talked to feel this way.



They sort of feel like they don’t have any control or say in technology. And as a result, it feels like technology is driving their decisions in ways that maybe aren’t always comfortable with. But a big part of my research and my engagement work is to try to help people realize that they have a say in technology. And if they don’t use that power then technology will have the say over their lives, but that there are ways to reassert our individual control of technology and push it in the directions that we want to see it go so.



[LISA] How can scientists ensure that nanotechnology and nano-enabled products are having a beneficial impact on society? [JAMEY] The number one thing is thinking about the potential impacts as early as possible in the process. Following up after the technology is quote-unquote complete. Technology is constantly evolving, which is why sometimes scientists and engineers feel a little powerless. But if you are one of the original creators or have a hand in building it from the beginning, that usually gives you some street cred later to be able to talk about ways in which it should or shouldn’t be used.


If somebody creates something that they think perhaps you know would benefit from some regulation to make sure that the benefits are maximized and the risks are limited, then engaging with government regulatory agencies, engaging with corporations and the regulations that they create can have a really really big impact on actually what the technology ultimately does.


[LISA] So I want to switch gears just a little bit and ask you about your engagement with students. Could you share a little bit about the importance of raising awareness among students? Some of the issues that that you address? It’s interesting actually, I don’t think I raise awareness of issues with students. I think I give them the chance to explore the awareness they already have. So what I find is a lot of scientists and engineering graduate students got into the field because they wanted to make the world a better place. And I think that as they get deep into their studies, they’re so focused on the minutia of lab work, they’re so focused on getting the right funding streams, that some of the questions that originally brought them to science and engineering get lost. The reward structure isn’t necessarily set up for scientists and engineers to really dive into issues of things like responsible development, but their hunger for it, I mean, they’re people, they’re not just scientists, they’re not just their training.



They have questions that their training hasn’t answered. And so a lot of what I do is simply provide forums for discussions where the students get to ask the questions that they’ve always wanted to ask, but have never been able to. And so one of the big projects that I lead every year is a project called science outside the lab that we’ve run through Arizona State University for actually about 20 years now. But I lead a group focused on nanotechnology every summer and I don’t do too much training of those students. What I train them in is how to ask good questions and then I try to get the right people in the room that they can ask the questions of. And so you get, for instance, every year we go to the EPA to talk to the people who do nanotechnology regulation. And the students get to ask the questions.



Well, how do you deal with the fact, just as an example question, how do you deal with the fact that you’re getting a lot of your information from the people who want to profit off of the technology? And you know those are the really tough political questions that have to be answered in order to make nanotechnology solve the problems that we’re hoping it will solve. And giving the students the chance to really dive in and explore those questions, I think has a profound impact on them and what they do with their future careers. [LISA] So Jamey, thank you so much for talking with us today and sharing your perspective on nanotechnology and society. 




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