Adding to the mix: integrating ELSI into a National Nanoscale Science and Technology Center.

Research paper by David J DJ Bjornstad, Amy K AK Wolfe

Indexed on: 10 Nov '11Published on: 10 Nov '11Published in: Science and Engineering Ethics


This paper describes issues associated with integrating the study of Ethical, Legal and Social Issues (ELSI) into ongoing scientific and technical research and describes an approach adopted by the authors for their own work with the center for nanophase materials sciences (CNMS) at the Oak Ridge national laboratory (ORNL). Four key questions are considered: (a) What is ELSI and how should it identify and address topics of interest for the CNMS? (b) What advantages accrue to incorporating ELSI into the CNMS? (c) How should the integration of ELSI into the CNMS take place? (d) How should one judge the effectiveness of the activity? We conclude that ELSI research is not a monolithic body of knowledge, but should be adapted to the question at hand. Our approach focuses on junctures in the R&D continuum at which key decisions occur, avoids topics of a purely ethical nature or advocacy, and seeks to gather data in ways that permit testing the validity of generalization. Integrating ELSI into the CNMS allows dealing with topics firmly grounded in science, offers concrete examples of potential downstream applications and provides access to the scientists using the CNMS and their insights and observations. As well, integration provides the opportunity for R&D managers to benefit from ELSI insights and the potential to modify R&D agendas. Successful integration is dependent on the particular ELSI question set that drives the project. In this case questions sought to identify key choices, information of value to scientists, institutional attributes, key attributes of the CNMS culture, and alternatives for communicating results. The opportunity to consult with scientists on ELSI implications is offered, but not promoted. Finally, ELSI effectiveness is judged by observing the use to which research products are put within the CNMS, ORNL, and the community of external scholars.