NASA takes lead on tech ethics

NASA is creating a technology ethics subcommittee to tackle the sensitive

issues associated with new technology, according to a senior NASA official.

As nanotechnology, biotechnology and information technology converge, Samuel

Venneri, associate administrator for NASA's Office of Aero-Space Technology,

said he hopes a similar approach to ethical issues will be taken on a national

scale. He proposed an organization similar to the White House Office of

Science and Technology Policy that would have expertise in policy, science

and engineering.

Venneri was among those who testified Monday before the House Government

Reform Committee's Government Management, Information and Technology Subcommittee

at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

The House subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.), wanted

to hear government, industry and academic perspectives on whether and how

the federal government can get ahead of the high-tech curve.

As advances in medicine and computing begin to rely on the same technologies,

federal funding is needed to train scientists early on to have experience

with physical science and IT, said Sussane Huttner, executive director of

the Industry-University Cooperative Research Program at the University of

California.

Venneri noted the potential for the technology to be abused.

"I don't think any one government agency is structured to deal with these

difficult questions now," Venneri said. That is why NASA is setting up a

structured subcommittee to the NASA Advisory Council that will bring in

a cross-section of expertise to address the implications of technology that

will be available in five to 10 years.

"Ethical questions are only part of the problem," said Charles Shank, director

of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California.

Gaining the trust of the public is a difficult thing to do when addressing

issues of gene manipulation, and the government's sponsorship of such research

must provide people with enough information to make informed judgments,

he said. When dealing with issues of fear, such as those involved with the

Human Genome Project, researchers must have patience, he said.

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