Nan­otech­nology is a con­tin­u­ally devel­oping branch of sci­ence, one with polit­ical, envi­ron­mental and eth­ical impli­ca­tions that are not yet fully under­stood. Among those taking the lead to clarify those issues is Christo­pher J. Bosso, asso­ciate dean of Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and director and prin­cipal inves­ti­gator for the University’s Nan­otech­nology and Society Research Group. Bosso is also author of a new book “Gov­erning Uncer­tainty: Envi­ron­mental Reg­u­la­tion in the Age of Nan­otech­nology.” Here, he dis­cusses public policy related to nan­otech­nology and the poten­tial impact of the fast-​​growing sci­ence, for good and ill.

Can you explain how you became involved in thinking about nanotechnology?

Every new tech­nology has direct and indi­rect con­se­quences for human health, the nat­ural envi­ron­ment and the society at large. I have had a long interest in the public policy dimen­sions of such con­se­quences going back to my doc­toral work on chem­ical pes­ti­cides. So it did not take much con­vincing when fac­ulty col­leagues Jackie Isaacs (mechan­ical and indus­trial engi­neering), Ron San­dler (phi­los­ophy and reli­gion) and Woody Kay (polit­ical sci­ence) asked me to join them in ongoing policy and ethics work con­nected to Northeastern’s Center for High-​​rate Nanoman­u­fac­turing (CHN).

We quickly real­ized that we were con­fronting a set of issues beyond CHN’s imme­diate domain, so with CHN director Ahmed Busnaina’s help, we put together our own National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion pro­posal to look at the broader envi­ron­mental and health chal­lenges posed by nano­ma­te­rials. We had the right pro­posal at the right time, giving us a rare oppor­tu­nity to do orga­nized and sus­tained inter­dis­ci­pli­nary thinking about policy and eth­ical issues related to nan­otech­nology and other emerging technologies.

Is it common for a uni­ver­sity with so much sci­ence and engi­neering research in nan­otech­nology to also study its pos­sible soci­etal impacts? What are the benefits?

It is not uncommon. The dif­fer­ence lays in orga­ni­za­tion, breadth and sus­tained effort, and the degree to which such research is con­nected to and informed by basic and applied research and development.

The ben­e­fits are two-​​fold. First, having ready access to col­leagues in sci­ence and engi­neering informs our thinking about policy and eth­ical issues, which in turn enables us to advise them on how policy and eth­ical con­cerns affect basic research, product devel­op­ment and tech­nology adop­tion. All of this makes for a lively and truly inter­dis­ci­pli­nary dis­course. Equally impor­tant, these col­lab­o­ra­tions ben­efit stu­dents across the dis­ci­plines. They show our stu­dents that the greatest insights about any problem are derived from span­ning dis­ci­pli­nary boundaries.

Nan­otech­nology is a vast area. From your per­spec­tive, what is the greatest poten­tial for devel­op­ments in the field?

It is hard to imagine any sector that won’t be reshaped. Per­haps the most exciting break­throughs are in areas like elec­tronics and medicine.

The work at CHN and other research lab­o­ra­to­ries here and else­where point to rev­o­lu­tionary break­throughs in the con­tinued minia­tur­iza­tion and speed of com­puting in the near future, making your iPhone a clunky mon­ster by com­par­ison. It bor­ders on the stuff of sci­ence fiction.

Break­throughs in nanomed­ical appli­ca­tions — including a lot of work at North­eastern — por­tends fun­da­mental shifts in how we detect and treat cancer, devise ther­a­pies for neu­ro­log­ical dis­eases like Parkinson’s or enhance the body’s capacity to heal itself when dam­aged. The prospects for a future where we are able to effec­tively deal with cancer, Alzheimer’s or dia­betes is a star­tling one and merits our close atten­tion along all kinds of policy and eth­ical dimensions.

What are the near– and long-​​term envi­ron­mental and health con­cerns about nan­otech­nology, and how do we address them?

Short term con­cerns are rather pro­saic and largely focused on ensuring that those working in lab­o­ra­to­ries and pro­duc­tion facil­i­ties aren’t exposed to poten­tially harmful engi­neered nanopar­ti­cles, and that they prac­tice proper dis­posal pro­ce­dures in dealing with nano­ma­te­rial waste.

Longer-​​term con­cerns include the extent to which nanopar­ti­cles are toxic to human and animal health — for example, whether cos­metics con­taining engi­neered nanopar­ti­cles have harmful long-​​term effects — and the pos­sibly harmful side effects of nano­ma­te­rials intro­duced into the envi­ron­ment for oth­er­wise ben­e­fi­cial rea­sons, such as injecting iron nanopar­ti­cles into the soil to reme­diate chemical-​​saturated “brownfields.”

What is the appro­priate role for gov­ern­ment in all of this?

It is not always obvious. As cit­i­zens, regard­less of overall ide­ology or par­tisan views, at min­imum we expect gov­ern­ment to address those risks that we as indi­vid­uals can nei­ther under­stand nor per­son­ally con­trol. And we expect gov­ern­ment to do so in some rea­son­ably respon­sive and trans­parent way. And we also want gov­ern­ment to pro­mote eco­nomic growth, tech­no­log­ical inno­va­tion and human health.

These are all bal­ancing acts —and often, dif­fi­cult ones — so the “appro­priate” role for gov­ern­ment will depend on our own pri­or­i­ties. And that requires cit­i­zens to be more aware of and crit­ical about the ben­e­fits and pos­sible costs of rev­o­lu­tionary technologies.