Ethical and Societal Values in Nanotoxicology
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Ethicists and policy makers have spent a good deal of effort considering how to make societal decisions in response to emerging public- and environmental-health risks like those posed by nanomaterials. This paper explores how these sorts of ethical and societal value judgments about responding to nanotechnology’s environmental health and safety risks arise not only in the public-policy domain but also “upstream,” in the performance of scientific research. It focuses especially on the notion that particular forms of research can be more “precautionary” than others, in the sense that they tend to facilitate the identification and prevention of environmental or public health threats to a greater extent than other approaches. This is illustrated in a specific case study of recent research in nanotoxicology, which shows how ethical and societal values could influence at least four aspects of research: (1) the nanomaterials studied; (2) the biological models used to investigate them; (3) the effects examined; and (4) the standards of evidence required for drawing conclusions. The paper concludes by proposing some mechanisms for integrating more careful ethical reflection into these “upstream,” value-laden decisions that pervade research on nanotechnology as well as other policy-relevant areas of science.