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Durham University

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Deepening Ethical Engagement and Participation in Emerging Nanotechnologies (DEEPEN)

A research project of the Department of Geography.


DEEPEN is a three-year research project funded by the European Commission.

The DEEPEN project is Europe’s leading research partnership for integrated understanding of the ethical challenges posed by emerging nanotechnologies in real world circumstances, and their implications for civil society, for governance, and for scientific practice.

The project is coordinated by The Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience (IHRR) at Durham University. The project team includes researchers based at Darmstadt University of Technology (Germany), the Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra (Portugal), and the University of Twente (Netherlands).

Nanotechnology is widely depicted to be one of the defining technologies of the 21st century. Based on the ability to measure, manipulate and organise material on the nanoscale – 1 to 100 billionths of a metre - the promise of nanotechnology is that it will radically transform everyday life. For its cheerleaders, nanotechnology is seen to be ushering in a ‘new industrial revolution’ that will include breakthroughs in computer efficiency, pharmaceuticals, nerve and tissue repair, catalysts, sensors, telecommunications and pollution control. Research funding for nanotechnologies has increased exponentially, with Europe, the US and Japan each spending more than US$1.2 billion in 2005, up from around $100 million a decade ago.

Nanotechnologies are enabling technologies, and give rise to potentially profound ethical and social questions. Whilst many of these questions are symptomatic of general unease affecting the introduction of new technologies, the interdisciplinarity and precision of nanoscale research and development suggest the possibility of new domains of ethical concern. Concern about the human health and environmental impacts of nanoparticles have already moved with remarkable rapidity onto the political and regulatory agenda in the UK, across Europe and in the United States. However, the nature and scope of wider ethical questions are still unclear, and their ramifications across different stakeholders and publics need to be further clarified and articulated.

The challenge that the DEEPEN project addresses is to develop an integrated understanding of the social and ethical dimensions of nanotechnology as they are evolving in ‘real-time’.


The DEEPEN project will focus specifically on two areas of nanotechnology development: the development of nano-sensors, and their potential to become integrated within electronic consumer goods, cars, medical devices, security and surveillance systems, pollution monitoring devices and so on; and the field of nanobiotechnology, and its promise of investigating the machinery of life. The domain areas chosen are representative both of two distinct approaches to nanotechnology, and as sites of innovation activity seen as most likely to engender ethical concern.

The goals of the DEEPEN project are to:

  • Deepen ethical understanding of issues related to emerging nanotechnologies through an interdisciplinary approach utilising insights from philosophy, ethics, and the social sciences
  • Map the ways that ethical and normative commitments are embedded in the development of nanotechnology research practices and develop ways of enhancing ethical reflexivity within the nanoscience community
  • Instigate a programme of cross-European empirical research aimed at unravelling the ‘lay ethics’ and values that a diverse European public use to understand and make sense of emerging nanotechnologies
  • Organise a series of deliberative fora in which citizens, stakeholders, experts and decision-makers can develop convergent and divergent understandings of the social and ethical ramifications of nanotechnology
  • Develop recommendations for articulating and deliberating ethical reflection in nanoscience practice and governance processes


The DEEPEN project will employ a unique interdisciplinary approach combining approaches from philosophical and ethical appraisal, qualitative social science, public engagement and deliberative methods. The project will be delivered through nine integrated work packages spread over four phases:

Phase 1 - Surveying Ethical and Societal Issues of Concern

In the first phase, researchers will examine what is at stake in nanotechnology - philosophically, ethically and socially. In particular, researchers will focus on aspects of emerging nanotechnologies that challenge traditional ethical thinking and categories, and which represent the key challenges for conceptualising the societal implications of emerging nanotechnologies. Researchers will also commence a series of empirical engagements, aimed at uncovering the ways in which the ethical and societal dimensions of nanotechnology are framed in research and development, and by the lay public.

Phase 2 - Integration

In the second phase the project will draw together the philosophical / ethical and empirical insights raised in the first phase. Through a series of technical workshops, and through the preparation of internal project reports, the project will develop a set of fully integrated, interdisciplinary insights.

Phase 3 - Experiments in new deliberative processes

Drawing on the integrated and interdisciplinary insights derived in first two phases, research in Phase Three will take two forms. Firstly, the project will experiment with a number of new deliberative processes aimed at deepening the understanding of ethical issues in nanotechnology and across a diverse range of public and political contexts. Phase Three will in addition assess the current regulatory and governance responses to emerging nanotechnologies in Europe, and focus on creating novel mechanisms through which such deliberation may be incorporated into policy, governance and regulation.

Phase 4 - Dissemination

In the fourth phase the results from the preceding phases will be analysed, summarised, discussed and presented. The main task in this phase is to contribute to a conceptual and methodological toolkit for integrating novel forms of ethical appraisal into the governance and ethical public accountability of emerging technologies in ways which engender a transparent, non-secretive, non-exclusive, and responsible politics.


The main research findings will be published in a final report - an agenda-setting account of how the ethical analysis and public engagement can be incorporated into the development of nanotechnology. Other dissemination activities will take place through collaboration throughout the life of the project.

Research Team

The projected is coordinated by the Institute for Hazard and Risk Research (IHRR) at University of Durham. The project team includes researchers based at Darmstadt University of Technology (Germany), the Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and the University of Twente (Netherlands).

For further information please contact:

1. Phil Macnaghten at IHRR at Durham University,
2. Alfred Nordmann at Technological University of Darmstadt,
3. Joao Arriscado Nunes at the Centre for Social Studies at University of Coimbra,
4. Arie Rip at Twente University,


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