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Dear Ethix – Issue 59

Wal-Mart Concerns

With regard to the Conversation with Don Soderquist from Wal-Mart, I am still flummoxed. He was very impressive with respect to his personal commitment and personal ethics. He also has done great work with his co-workers, employees, and leadership foundation, as well as his giving to the poor in both Guatemala and inner city Chicago. How can one be this dedicated to ethics and be one of the elites and deliberately manage the largest U.S. company to minimize health care availability to employees?

What made this country great, in my opinion, was the tremendous opportunities afforded to the working class by great companies like GM, Ford, Boeing, etc., that enabled working people to send their kids to college and seek a better life if they were willing to work for it. This enabled the middle class to grow substantially in the U.S. in the 20th century. These great companies not only provided health care, but also many other benefits for their workers.

The social compact between successful companies and their workers should at a minimum be a living wage and health care. Wal-Mart shirks this responsibility and increases its profit and foists its uninsured workers on the taxpayers of the states they are located in and making profits in, weakening our medical system and pushing society toward a socialist medical solution that will degrade the quality and access for the vast majority of Americans. So a rich bad apple makes everyone else pay for it.

I’m a capitalist, but in this case, government regulation is warranted. They should be forced to behave like a responsible corporate citizen. If that affects product prices, so be it. Compete like everyone else.

Mark Chamberlain
Issaquah, Wash.

Nanotechnology

Your article on “Smart Dust and Nanobots” reminded me to share with Ethix the work I am doing to facilitate a national citizen consensus conference on nanotech (see http://cns.asu.edu/nctf).

During the 1970s, a number of efforts arose to increase public reflection on technology. The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA, 1972) was one of a very few federal agencies reporting directly to Congress and designed to enhance the intelligence of legislative action. With the termination of the OTA in 1995, Congress has had to search for alternative, appropriate means to help it deal with challenges presented by the funding and regulation of science and technology.

One complement to technology assessment by experts has been the development of specialized studies of the ethical dimensions of scientific and technological activity. Of particular relevance are the creation of codes of professional conduct for engineers (which can be traced back to the early part of the 20th century), and efforts to promote scientific integrity through the teaching of the responsible conduct of research (with special initiatives in this area emerging in response to a number of stories in the 1980s about scientific fraud and misconduct). But the most sustained government-supported activities of this type have been the funding of research into the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of science and technology. The ELSI acronym comes from the Human Genome Project, which devoted 3 to 5 percent of its funding to such research.

During the 1970s, there arose in Europe a number of processes for enabling the intelligent, public management of science and technology, with an emphasis on informed, public participation. One of the most well known goes under the general name of “consensus conferences,” which were activities designed to provide a means for broad citizen input in science and technology policy. One well-developed model for consensus conference work is that developed by the Danish Board of Technology (BOT), a research agency of the Danish Parliament that is often asked to provide legislative input. The BOT assembles an Oversight Committee composed of experts and stakeholders, develops background information, recruits 12-15 citizens to serve on a citizen panel (for which they will be paid a modest stipend), and conducts a conference with results being made available to the legislature, press, and public.

The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was established in 2001 and was subsequently enhanced by the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act (2003). In response to requests for proposals to establish an ELSI-like center for nanotechnology, a network of universities led by the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (CSPO) at Arizona State University proposed a consensus conference process in the U.S. Funding in 2006 established the Center for Nanotechnology and Society, directed by David Guston at Arizona State. That Center has sponsored a consensus conference called the National Citizens Technology Forum (NCTF), under the leadership of Hamlett at North Carolina State University, one of the participant institutions in the original CSPO proposal.

Carl Mitcham
Golden, Colo.

Editor’s Note: The report on page 18, written by 14 informed citizens, emerged from one site participating in the NCTF on nanotechnology.

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