University of Washington Social and Ethical Issues Research Team Update, Feburary 2013


Executive Director and Principal Investigator, Suzanne G. Brainard, PhD.

The Social and Ethical Issues in Nanotechnology (SEIN) research team at the Center for Workforce Development, University of Washington has made great strides toward furthering research on SEIN and has disseminated a great deal of research findings. 

Dissemination of Research by University of Washington SEI team

UW-NNIN SEI Team: Center for Workforce Development Overview

Nanotechnology Career Pathways
The CWD interviewed nanoscientist and nanoengineers at four NNIN sites regarding three areas: 1) Career pathways of men and women scientists; 2) Perceptions of risks and benefits of technology; and 3) Views on social and ethical awareness in the nanotechnology community. The four institutions were Cornell, Georgia Tech, Stanford and the University of Washington (UW). A total of 49 nanoscientists were interviewed.
Findings include:

  1. Perceptions of risk by nanoscientists are persistently associated with safety precautions within the lab rather than any potential benefits or risks of the results.
  2. Fifty-seven percent (57%) of participants mentioned that some kind of training would be beneficial in providing awareness of nanotechnology social and ethical issues for faculty. Responses also included a request for web-based training and in-person discussions.
  3. More male nanoscientists are drawn into the field out of an intrinsic interest or excitement, whereas more female scientists enter the field as a tool rather than an end-in-itself. 

Work done on this topic includes:

Savath, V. & S.G. Brainard. (Special Edition 2013) “Managing Nanotechnology Risks in Vulnerable Populations: A Case for Gender Diversity.”  Review of Policy Research.

Brainard, S.G., Allen, E., Savath, V. & S. Cruz. (In review) “Factors and perspectives influencing nanotechnology career development: Comparison of male and female academic nanoscientists.” Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering.

For more information on this project, contact Research Assistant: Stephanie Cruz.

Nano and Gender Workshop
CWD held a NSF-funded Nano and Gender Workshop at AAAS in Washington DC that brought together leading national researchers in the social sciences and nanosciences to provide direction to the NSF on how nanotechnology can benefit from increased participation of women faculty. A monograph summarizing results and recommendations has been published and disseminated nationally.

Toward Increasing Diversity in STEM Faculty: A Workshop Addressing Underrepresentation of Women of all Ethnicities in Nanoscience Fields

Nature Alerts published a brief summary of the Nano and Gender Workshop. The workshop was also profiled in Nano News, written by Constance Jeffery, science writer and faculty at University of Illinois, Chicago.

Workshop attendees suggest methods to improve the number and advancement of women scientists in NanoScience/NanoTechnology.

Nanotechnology Conference and Resources Website
The Center for Workforce Development (The College of Engineering, University of Washington), received an Ethics in Engineering and Science Education (EESE) grant from the National Science Foundation to address what prior CWD research has identified as a need for nano-ethics graduate education in science and engineering. The three-year project, Nano-ethics on the World Wide Web: Helping Faculty Enhance Graduate Education, culminated in the development of a graduate seminar in nano-ethics piloted at the UW, distribution of nano-ethics educational resources online, and hosting the inaugural international symposium on nano-ethics. Together with the University of South Carolina’s, UW held the first meeting of the Society for Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies (SNET) Sept. 8-11, 2009 in Seattle, Washington.

Find out more about our conference and nano-ethics educational resources here:

Nanoethics Course
A special topics course in nanoethics was developed and taught (Winter 2009) by Marjorie Olmstead (Physics) and Deborah Bassett (CWD). The course attracted 15 students (including 2 postdocs and a visiting scholar from Europe) from science and engineering, social sciences, and the humanities. The course featured weekly presentations from faculty involved with nanotech and studies of nanotech from across the UW campus and Robert McGinn (NNIN SEI researcher from Stanford). Students in the course developed short case studies on ethical aspects of nanotechnology to be used as study guides by future students and industry.

Teaching Nanoethics to Graduate Students a presentation for the 2009 Nanoethics Graduate Education Conference details the findings of the course

The Frontiers in Nanotechnology class, which addresses societal and ethical issues in Nanotechnology, fulfills NSF-NNIN requirements for ethical education. Training is now a mandatory step in new user registration and training sessions are usually held monthly depending on user demand. Class curricula have been developed through several iterations of instructors, including an education and outreach coordinator, and graduate students in electrical engineering, philosophy, and chemistry.

An additional course in the Responsible Conduct of Research was created for CITI training by Dr. Suzanne Brainard in 2008. The chapter titled, “Responsibilities of Mentors and Trainees” can be found in J. Borenstein (Ed.) CITI Course in the Protection of Human Research Subjects: Ethical Dimensions of Engineering Research

Learning about Nanotechnology and the Social and Ethical Issues of Nanotechnology (SEIN)
Nanotechnology Annotated Bibliography
Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Overview
SEIN Teacher’s guide
SEIN Student’s guide
Presentation to teach about SEIN

Public Health and Nanotechnology Perceptions
A research project entitled “Perceived Risks and Hazards of Nanotechnology Development – Comparisons among Faculty at the University of Washington Affiliated with Nanotechnology / Nanoscience and Environmental Health Science” was recently completed and submitted as a graduate student’s master’s thesis in public health. 

This study surveyed University of Washington faculty associated with the Center for Nanotechnology or the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences.  Faculty members (116) were invited to participate in an online or phone survey; 52 responded.  The study objectives were to measure and evaluate differences between nanotechnologists/nanoscientists and environmental health scientists in behavior, knowledge, beliefs and attitudes relating to nano-development.  The hypotheses were that 1) environmental health scientists would perceive greater risk and greater need for nano-development regulation and public awareness than would nanotechnologists/nanoscientists and that 2) nanotechnologists/nanoscientists would perceive greater benefit to nano-development than would environmental health scientists.  Variances in knowledge, communication, and attitudes including trust, regulation and perceived benefits and risks were examined in order to better understand cross-disciplinary differences.

The results of this study mirrored previous findings (2004 Cobb and Macoubrie study and 2005 Macoubrie study) including that people with more knowledge of nanotechnology are more likely to think the benefits of nano-development will outweigh the risks, that there is a general lack of definition of nanotechnology among the field’s own community, and that there is lack of trust in regulatory agencies to prevent hazards from nano-development.  Results of this study also confirm findings from preliminary interviews that there is a lack of definition for nanotechnology and that researchers are reluctant to identify themselves primarily with nanotechnology or nanoscience. 

Executive Summary of Public Health and Nanotechnology Research

Work done on this topic includes:
Hughes, Caroline A.  (2006) Perceived Risks and Hazards of Nanotechnology Development – Comparisons among Faculy at the University of Washington Affiliated with Nanotechnology / Nanoscience and Environmental Health Science.  Master’s Thesis.

Hughes, Caroline A.; Gilbert, Steven G.; Meischke, Hendrika W.; Litzler, Elizabeth. (2007) Perceived Risks and Hazards of Nanotechnology.   Presented for Society of Toxicology Meeting

Identifying and Analyzing the Discourse(s) of Nanotechnology and Nanoscience
The research project entitled “Identifying and Analyzing the discourse(s) of nanotechnology and nanoscience” is ongoing.  This project is the basis for Deborah Bassett’s Ph.D. dissertation in communication.  Fieldwork and data collection phase of the project will be finished shortly.

The study intends to: conduct an ethnography of communication that identifies the various discourses about social and ethical implications of nanotechnology and nanoscience (SEIN), and in so doing, provide a taxonomy that enables researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds to engage with each other, as well as with the media, and the public at large in meaningful discussion about nanotechnology and nanoscience. Drawing upon literature in intercultural communication, this study will identify what issues related to SEIN are considered significant within different discourse communities (e.g., nanoscientists, social scientists, ethicists, popular media, the public at large, etc.), describe how these issues are talked about (e.g., what imagery or metaphors are used to discuss SEIN), and suggest ways in which the various discourses might be appropriated in order to promote collaboration among the discourse communities (e.g., an interdisciplinary research team).  

Work done on this topic includes:

Bassett, D. (2012) “Notions of Identity, Society, and Rhetoric in a Speech Code of Science Among Scientists and Engineers Working in Nanotechnology.” Science Communication. 34(1): 115-159.

Bassett, D. (2009) “Talk about nano”: Ways of speaking about science, society, and ethics among scientists and engineers. University of Washington doctoral dissertation.

Bassett, D. (June 2009) “Nanomaterials in the world of cosmetics” at the UW Women of Color Collective Dialoguing Difference Conference, University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

Allen, E. & Bassett, D. (2008) .“Listen up! The need for public engagement in nanoscale science and technology.” Nanotechnology Law & Business, 4 (5). 429-439.

Bassett, D. (2008) “Scientific Perspectives on Social and Ethical Issues Related to Nanotechnology.” Public Communication of Science and Technology Conference (PCST-10), Copenhagen, Denmark.

Bassett, D. & Litzler, E.  (November 2006) “Competing discourses of disruptive technologies:  A case study.”  Society for the Social Studies of Science Conference, Vancouver, B.C.

Bassett, D. (Spring 2006) “Cultural Codes in Science: Analyzing the Discourse(s) of Nanoscience/Nanotech” 
Native American Students in Advanced Academia annual conference, UW

Bassett, D. (Spring 2006) “Cultural Codes in Science: Analyzing the Discourse(s) of Nanoscience/Nanotech” 
Lecture to upper-division undergraduate communication class, UW

Bassett, D. (Fall 2005) “Cultural Codes in Science: Analyzing the Discourse(s) of Nanoscience/Nanotech”
Presented research in progress during seminar series for nanotechnology graduate students, UW

Interdisciplinary Communication
The work being done by the Center for Workforce Development on interdisciplinary communication is varied.  The goal is to identify strategies for multi-disciplinary, cross-site collaboration and work within the NNIN team. A survey to assess communication and conflict management strategies within the NNIN organizational context was developed and administered.  The goal of this survey is to gain an understanding of how multi-disciplinary, cross-site communication works among the people associated with the NNIN grant at all involved institutions.

A workshop on diversity awareness was developed for nanotechnology graduate students.  The goal of this workshop was to give scientists and engineers working in nanotechnology the knowledge to be able to work effectively across disciplinary fields.  For this workshop, diversity is defined very broadly, and includes diversity in background, experience, etc.  This workshop is based on research literature on diversity awareness and multi-cultural communication.  The workshop will be given to graduate students, faculty and staff at the University of Washington, and can also be given at other institutions.

Work done on this topic includes:

Bassett, D. Chapter in D. Guston & J.G. Golson (Eds.). (2010) Encyclopedia of Nanoscience and Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Bassett, D. (March 2007) “Ways of Speaking about Social and Ethical Issues in Nanotechnologies Among Scientists and Engineers.” Guest Lecture, Department of Communication, Pennsylvania State University.

Bassett, D. (March 2007) “Ways of Speaking about Social and Ethical Issues in Nanotechnologies Among Scientists and Engineers.” Guest Lecture, Department of Communication, Bloomsburg University.

Bassett, D (Jan. 2007) “Ways of Speaking about Social and Ethical Issues in Nanotechnologies Among Scientists and Engineers.” Guest Lecture, Department of Communication, Carroll College.

Bassett, D. (Dec. 2006) “Ways of Speaking about Social and Ethical Issues in Nanotechnologies Among Scientists and Engineers.” Guest Lecture, Department of Communication, Gustavus Adolphus College.

Bassett, D. (2006) “Cultural Codes in Science: Analyzing the Discourse(s) of Nanoscience/Nanotech”  Guest Lecture, Cultural Codes in Communication, Department of Communication, University of Washington.

Bassett, D. (2005) “Promoting cooperation in the geographically-distributed, multidisciplinary research team: Using communication media to implement informal sanctioning measures.” National Communication Association Convention, Boston, MA.

Bassett, D. & Dutton, T. (2006) "A study of Fisher and Ury's negotiation model for intercultural interaction". (Invited presentation for Intercultural Communication Division panel.) National Communication Association Convention, San Antonio, TX.

Nanotechnology Workforce
A survey focusing on the nanotechnology personnel needs of companies and current demographics of the nanotechnology workforce at these same companies is in development.  A list of nanotechnology companies has been compiled, and the survey will be submitted for review by the Institutional Review Board at the University of Washington. 

Some data on the future nanotechnology workforce has been collected from students in the University of Washington interdisciplinary nanotechnology Ph.D. program, and students who have taken nanotechnology courses.

Student perceptions of Social and Ethical Issues in Nanotechnology
Future Nanotechnology Workforce?

The Center for Workforce Development compiled the following information and it is currently listed on the University of Washington Center for Nanotechnology User Facility webpage. (

  • List of current Degree Programs in Nanotechnology
    • lists 18 undergraduate nanotechnology courses, programs and conferences in the U.S.A.
    • CWD has list of 28 institutions with at least one course in a nanotechnology related field.
  • List of Nanotechnology Professional Associations
    • 33 associations
  • List of Nanotechnology Academic Journals
    • 19 journals
  • List of Nanotechnology companies (complete to ‘N’)
    • Currently 125 companies, list not complete.
  • List of popular media that feature nanotechnology
    • Fiction, Film and Television lists

Mentoring and Tracking of Nanotechnology Graduate Students
In 2001, The Center for Workforce Development (CWD) partnered with the Center for Nanotechnology (CNT) at the University of Washington to develop a system to track student progress through the new, interdisciplinary program in Nanotechnology and to create the Nanotechnology Graduate Student Mentoring Program. The report linked below is the fifth annual report from the Center for Workforce Development detailing the major findings from student tracking and from the mentoring evaluations.

The report for the 2004-2005 academic year indicated

  • 80.2% of students throughout the cohorts report that their program of study is preparing them for both academic and non-academic career choices.  10.5% report preparation for academic careers only, 9.3% report preparation for non-academic careers only.
  • Although many students (58%) see themselves in private industry after graduation, most (71%) are finding or choosing jobs in post-doctoral or other academic positions.
  • Many students feel that the Nanotechnology Ph.D. program has positively and significantly impacted their career development (46.2%) and knowledge of nanotechnology (80.2%).  However, only 11.4% report that the program has greatly expanded their industry contacts and interaction.

Executive Summary of 2005-2006 Report on Nano Mentoring Program and Tracking


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