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“Just Carbon”: Ideas About Graphene Risks by Graphene Researchers and Innovation Advisors

Journal article
Authors Rickard Arvidsson
Max Boholm
Mikael Johansson
Monica Lindh de Montoya
Published in NanoEthics
Volume 12
Issue 3
Pages 199–210
ISSN 18714757
Publication year 2018
Published at Gothenburg Research Institute (GRI)
Pages 199–210
Language en
Keywords ELSA, Nanomaterial, Responsible research and innovation, Risk association, Safety
Subject categories Other Social Sciences, Nano Technology


© 2018, The Author(s). Graphene is a nanomaterial with many promising and innovative applications, yet early studies indicate that graphene may pose risks to humans and the environment. According to ideas of responsible research and innovation, all relevant actors should strive to reduce risks related to technological innovations. Through semi-structured interviews, we investigated the idea of graphene as a risk (or not) held by two types of key actors: graphene researchers and innovation advisors at universities, where the latter are facilitating the movement of graphene from the laboratory to the marketplace. The most common idea found is that graphene is not a risk due to, e.g., low toxicity, low amounts produced/used, and its similarity to harmless materials (being “just carbon”). However, some researchers and advisors also say that graphene is a risk, e.g., under certain conditions or due to a lack of risk-related information. We explain the co-existence of these seemingly contradictory ideas through (1) the semantic ambiguity of the word risk and (2) a risk/no-risk rhetoric, where risks are mentioned rhetorically only to be disregarded as manageable or negligible. We suggest that some of the ideas held by the researchers and innovation advisors constitute a challenge to responsible research and innovation regarding graphene. At the same time, we acknowledge the dilemma that the discourse of responsible innovation creates for the actors: denying graphene risks makes them irresponsible due to a lack of risk awareness, while affirming graphene risks makes them irresponsible due to their everyday engagement in graphene development. We therefore recommend more research into what researchers and innovation advisors should do in practice in order to qualify as responsible.

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