Nanotechnology, Society, and Education

Starting with the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century, the world has witnessed successive technology transformations, such as steam engines, railways, automobiles, airplanes, computers internet, which changed our habits, notions, works, relations, and norms. From the stand point of its impact, technology has been the beauty and the beast in the same time. It has been contributing to developing new resources of food and energy, better medical care, less transportation restrictions, diversity of communication tools, and others. Nevertheless, technology was also the chief responsible for wide-spread environmental pollution, increased stress and anxiety, illness, and addiction to virtual life.
During the last two decades, the world has been witnessing the emergence of a substantial technology revolution named as nanotechnology, the roots of which go back to about half a century. Nanotechnology is concerned with the design and utilization of materials that possess at least one dimension in nanometer size. It is a multidisciplinary field that encompasses contributions from various disciplines such as chemistry, physics, biology, material science, and engineering. By virtue of its broad impact, nanotechnology interests a wide spectrum of social and occupational fractions. Among those are scientists, businessmen, law makers, sociologists, and environmentalists. Many sectors are benefiting from this field, including information technology, energy, environment, medicine, consumer products, chemical industry, and many others. According to the forecast made by the well-known American expert Mehail Roco, by the year 2020 nanotech economy will amount to about three trillion dollars, with about six million workers serving in various nanotech-related sectors worldwide. Due to its enormous potential market and applications, nanotechnology is expected to affect numerous aspects of human life, and as such, it is vital to avoid the mistakes of the past technology practices by establishing sustainable transformations, which are based on economic–environmental, social–environmental, and economic–social balances.
As it has been always the case, technology revolutions induce social changes and environmental apprehension. From environmental perspective, small size of materials eventually leads to easier dispersion of pollutants. The paucity in current knowledge about the fate of nanomaterials necessitates developing precautional strategies against its potential risks to the environment. This factor has been motivating intensive research activities across the globe, but there seem to be a long distance to go in this direction. From a social stand point, public deliberation is required to raise the awareness about nanotechnology products so that society can be critical and can contribute to regulating the outcome of this technology. In this context, new classes of hardly visible or detectable devices, and the development of human-enhancing technologies are expected to generate privacy and security concerns. The foreseen development in the diagnosis and treatment of illness is expected to extend the human lifespan and, as such, may require new legislations regarding retirement and insurance policies. Research ethics and intellectual property protection are other sources of anxiety which need further legislative regulations to avoid problems like pursuing dangerous research and patent-grab.
The promising future of nanotechnology and its far-reaching effects on different aspects of life is accelerating the demand for specific education and professional skills. Nanotechnology is a multidisciplinary field, which is causing the perceived classical boundaries of individual science and technological disciplines to fade away. Cross-disciplinary approaches to education are thus required to produce human resources with targeted knowledge and skill. The needed educational package broadly includes theoretical knowledge in basic sciences, technical knowledge for synthesis and characterization of materials, market needs and economic feasibility knowledge, in addition to social and environmental considerations.
Many universities across the world, including those in some developing countries, are currently offering academic programs that lead to Bachelor, Master, and/or Doctorate degrees in Nanotechnology. In some developed countries, nanotechnology education is starting to take place even at high school level. According to the last UNESCO Science Report published in 2010, innovation has a central importance in economic development, and nanotechnology being one of the leading fields open to innovation, is suggested as a field in which developing countries can grow faster than the early leaders of technology by building on the accumulation of unexploited technology and benefiting from lower risks. It is therefore necessary that nanoscience and technology penetrates the education curricula in Palestine. On the universities’ level, challenges of nano-education and research include general shortage in qualified human resources, lack of heavy equipments and appropriate research facilities, insufficient cooperation among local scientists and universities. In spite of this, it is urgently needed to start offering nanoscience and nanotech courses on undergraduate and graduate levels. This can be done through internal and external cooperation, and preferably by adopting module system and summer schools. On the short run, it is necessary to create training opportunities for Palestinian researchers and students in advanced labs abroad. Investing in nanotechnology research is expensive and surpasses the capacities of individual local universities. Therefore, it is necessary to define a national strategy and improve the coordination between academia, government and industry, and on the intermediate run, work on establishing a national Nanotechnology research center, which is equally accessible to local researchers. Acting in this direction is essential in order to produce human resources needed to meet the challenges of the rapidly approaching future.
Prof. Talal ShahwanDean of Faculty of Graduate StudiesBirzeit University