Duke Group Tackles 'Nanoethics' Education

May 1, 2006

An interdisciplinary group of Duke experts has set out to advance ethics education for researchers working on problems at the nano-scale — on the order of billionths of a meter, or 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Scientific breakthroughs in nanotechnology are expected to increase the speed and efficiency of computers, advance medicine through tissue engineering and lead to the emergence of materials with entirely new physical and chemical properties. However, such advances may raise unique ethical concerns for society, including possible environmental toxicity, military use and privacy issues, said professor of mechanical engineering and materials sciences Rob Clark, who has spearheaded discussion of such issues through his work at the Duke Center for Biologically Inspired Materials and Material Systems.

“People naturally have a fear of the unknown,” Clark said. “It behooves us as scientists to lay the foundation for understanding the societal implications of nanotechnology early.”

To help further increase such awareness among science and engineering graduate students, Duke University was awarded funding from the National Science Foundation for a three-year educational/research project to develop, implement and evaluate innovative methods for examining ethical issues in nanoscale, and emerging technology research more generally.

Led by professor of civil and environmental engineering Tod Laursen, the core team includes Clark; Elizabeth Kiss, director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics; Tim Lenoir, the Kimberly Jenkins Chair for New Technologies and Society; and Dan Vallero, adjunct professor of engineering ethics. Laursen is also the senior associate dean for education at the Pratt School.

The effort extends Duke’s current training programs for students and faculty engaged in research through the Responsible Conduct of Research initiatives to specifically address educational challenges raised by the emergent science of nanotechnology.

“Many times in science and engineering, research gets out in front of ethical considerations,” Vallero said. “For many of us at the Pratt School, it became obvious that nanotechnology is an area ripe for both the benefits and ethical challenges of discovery.”

“The endeavor represents a true partnership and an opportunity to establish a network of people to think with a clean slate about how we train students on ethics,” Laursen added.

The group kicked off the effort in March with the first of three annual workshops. The initial planning workshop aimed to identify a set of micro- and macro-ethics considerations to guide the group’s work and define strategies — such as case studies and benchside consultations--for addressing such issues in graduate education.

Micro-ethics are those practiced by the individual engineer or researcher, such as adhering to professional codes of conduct, Vallero said. Macro-ethics are larger issues confronted by society, including those that balance any possible risks of nanotechnologies for the public with the need for continued technological advances that benefit health, safety and social well-being.

Educational materials now under development by the group are expected to be implemented beginning in fall semester 2006.

Ethics across the Curriculum

The nanoethics program is just one example of a more general effort at the Pratt School to integrate ethics into as many facets of the undergraduate and graduate curriculum as possible, Vallero said.

A professional ethics course taught by Vallero has been offered at Duke for a number of years. “However, if you simply require students to take a freestanding ethics course, the real-world import can be lost,” he said.

An alternative approach is to integrate ethics across the engineering curriculum in a more comprehensive way to bring such considerations to a “more meaningful place,” he said.

“Students can begin to think about the whole life cycle of their designs and optimize accordingly, rather than considering just a few variables,” Vallero said. For example, they can begin to consider the long-term sustainability or social impact of a design.

Ethics has been integrated into the freshman course EGR10: Introduction to Engineering, Vallero said. Service learning courses such as the interdisciplinary Natural Catastrophes: Rebuilding from Ruins offer students the opportunity to serve society and consider the broader implications of their work.

Ethics also is being incorporated into capstone design courses taken by students in their junior or senior years. In civil and environmental engineering (CEE), for example, David Schaad, assistant chair of CEE, asked design students to examine a report “written” by a fictitious engineering company, “SCIHTE” (ethics spelled backwards). Unbeknownst to the students, the report contained obvious errors, which they were expected to catch.

“It offered a teachable moment,” Schaad said. “Civil engineers work on projects in the public domain like bridges and roads all the time and are often in the position to pick up where another team left off. Problems commonly occur when engineers give their stamp of approval without checking things carefully.”

Members of the Pratt School are continuing to consider additional methods for addressing department-specific ethical issues.

“The challenges faced by a field researcher versus a lab researcher or modeler will have both similarities and differences, we are working to get in front of all of those issues,” Vallero said.