Drinking at the champagne bar of modern science

A trip through the newly refurbished St. Pancras station in London this week, and home to the widely-proclaimed “longest champagne bar in Europe”, prompted the following thought: At the champagne bar of modern science, are risk researchers the cappuccino drinkers tucked away in the corner?

I’m not sure how far I would dare push such an analogy, but sometimes it seems that scientists who focus on understanding and addressing risks have the less glamorous end of the deal. Attending the European Nanotechnology Occupational Safety and Health (NanOSH) conference in Helsinki, I was struck afresh by the difficulties of evaluating the relevance and importance of risk-related research.  The criteria usually used to assess exploratory and applications-focussed research don’t seem to fit comfortably here.  With some notable exceptions, risk research is more often than not evolutionary rather than original; it doesn’t tend to expand our fundamental understanding of the universe; and there are not that many examples of it making people fabulously rich.  Getting published in a high impact journal like Science or Nature is really tough if you are in the risk research business.  And health and safety Intellectual Property often seems, quite frankly, as common as the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

But does this mean—as some seem to believe—that risk research is somehow second-rate science?  Or is there a danger of applying the wrong criteria when assessing its value, and so coming to the wrong conclusions?

Most risk research is focussed specifically on solving problems and preventing harm.  Where it is successful, the chances of something unpleasant happening are reduced or removed.  On the way, it can be as innovative as other areas of research.  Yet original discoveries are often incidental to its main purpose.  The ultimate aim of risk research is not to be original or to make money (although both may be serendipitous spin-offs). Rather, it is to improve the quality of our lives and the environment in which we live—this is what drives many of its practitioners.

I suspect that this disconnect between the aims of risk research and the criteria under which research in general is evaluated has undermined the importance of investigations that aim to reduce possible harm.  Over the years, the risk research community has grown to accept a reality of meagre funding levels and marginal recognition outside those groups it immediately impacts on.

Yet as nanotechnology moves with increasing rapidity from the lab to the market place, misunderstandings that lead to risk research being evaluated against the wrong end-points are in danger of preventing the right work being done by those best qualified to direct, fund and undertake it.

The need for a strong risk-focussed research program to underpin safe emerging nanotechnologies is almost universally agreed on.  But as decision makers use a generic set of criteria to direct and evaluate risk research, it seems we become increasingly vulnerable to favouring projects that are innovative and profitable, over those that reduce the chances of harm occurring.  More than once, the sentiment has been expressed that nanotechnology risk research proposals are just not up to the mark.  Knowing the quality of researchers in this field around the world, and their struggles to obtain adequate funding, I can only assume this is a mark that is more relevant to exploratory and applications-driven research, rather than preventing harm.

Listening to the presentations in Helsinki, I found it hard to believe that the risk research community is not up to the task at hand.  Here were people that were systematically and expertly chipping away at the unknowns surrounding the safe use of engineered nanomaterials.  In many cases the research wasn’t flashy, it would not lead to IP, it “merely” led to an incremental understanding of potential to cause harm, and it wasn’t always original.  Placed alongside research into the next great nanotech applications, much of it would seem dull and unimaginative.  But none of this detracts from its importance to protecting the quality of life of people working with and using the products of nanotechnology.

Good science is good science, independent of the field of research.  Yet let’s not fall into the trap of confusing good science with original and profitable science.  Risk research may not be as sexy as other areas of research, but that should not prevent us from recognizing its importance or relevance.  Safe and sustainable nanotechnologies need the expertise and perspective of researchers trained in understanding and minimizing risks.  We cannot afford to marginalize them by evaluating what they do against the wrong criteria.  And we cannot afford to starve them by directing funds to more fashionable but less able investigators.

And just for the record, mine was a cappuccino.

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This post first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in December 2007

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