Saints or synners?

December 17, 2008

Policy, public perceptions, and the opportunities and challenges of synthetic biology

Synthetic biology—a supreme expression of scientific hubris, or the solution to all our problems?

Like everything in life, I suspect that the answer to the question is far from black and white.  Yet what is clear is that this emerging science and technology that merges evolutionary biology with systematic engineering raises many exciting new possibilities, together with a heap of complex social, ethical and even religious questions.

Striking the right balance between these opportunities and challenges will require people working together in new and innovative ways—especially those involved in researching, developing, using and overseeing synbio.  If the emerging technology is to reach its potential, some tough decisions are going to have to be made at some point on what is developed, how it is used, and how it is regulated.  And the more these decisions are based on sound science and informed thinking, the better.

This is the challenge a new initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has set its sights on.  The just-launched Project on Synthetic Biology aims to foster informed public and policy discourse concerning the advancement of the field, working in collaboration with researchers, governments, industries, non-government organizations and others.  Supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the project will draw on experience gained in addressing science and technology policy issues by the Project on Emerging Technologies—so you can expect to see some familiar faces here ☺

Rather than write a tedious infomercial for the new project, I would suggest instead that you check out the snazzy new website at  Having said that, there are three things worth highlighting: Read the rest of this entry »

Emerging science and technology at 700 characters per day – how was it for you?

December 13, 2008

The pains and pleasures of tweeting science and technology innovation, 140 characters at a time.

Five days, 539 words and 3,447 characters later, the Twitter experiment is over. Did I succeed in communicating on emerging science and technology in 700 characters a day?  I’m not sure.  The whole exercise was harder than I expected.  Trying to come up with something interesting and relevant five times a day was a challenge.  Thursday was a particularly tough day—and the entries show it!

But at the end of the exercise, I must admit it was fun.  And even though tweeting will never supplant full-on blogging for communicating stuff in depth, it clearly has a place.

I’m not sure I would do a five-day stint like this again, but the medium is clearly open to innovative use.  And with some thought, could be used to convey more complex information than trivial thoughts and web links.  Personally, I think my writing-style took a dive with the constraints imposed by the character-limit and serial-posts.  But I was surprised at how much could be crammed into 140 characters, with some thought.  And while the experiment had many flaws, I think there is scope to use Twitter and similar formats in ways that lead to engagement on issues with some depth. Read the rest of this entry »

Emerging science and technology at 700 characters per day

December 6, 2008

Getting serious with Twitter

I’m gutted.  I thought that blogging was where it is at—the cutting edge of the “new media” wave transforming modern communication.  But I now discover that I’m at least four years behind the times—a veritable dinosaur in the world of “Web 2.0!”

Which is why I’m pushing myself out on a limb with a bold experiment in social network communication this week!

November’s edition of Wired Magazine ran a story entitled “Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004.” And just in case you didn’t get the message about blogging from the title, the opening paragraph rammed it home:

“Thinking about launching your own blog? Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t. And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug.”

The blogosphere is being deluged by a stream of “paid bilge” according to the article… Read the rest of this entry »

Toxic particles and trivial pursuits*

November 23, 2008

First impressions of the ICON EHS Database Analysis Tool

What do you do this holiday season when the turkey’s lost its appeal, you’ve seen every movie worth watching ten times over, and conversational déjà-vu sets in?  If you are really desperate, you could play “nano-trivia”—and thanks to the fine folks at the International Council On Nanotechnology (ICON) you now have the perfect widget to help craft those cunning questions that will have your nearest and dearest wracking their brains.

Questions like “between 2000 and 2006, what percentage of scientific papers addressing the toxicity of carbon-based nanomaterials considered exposure via mucous membranes (or the skin)?”

OK, so maybe playing “toxic particle trivial pursuits” is the last resort of the desperate, and likely to result in an ever-decreasing circle of close friends.  But for all that, the new ICON Environmental Health and Safety Database Analysis Tool has its merits… Read the rest of this entry »


November 19, 2008

Stephanie Meyer, blockbuster movies and emerging technologies

If you are a teenager, or have teenage kids, you are probably keenly aware that the movie of Stephanie Meyer’s best-seller “Twilight” opens this weekend.  (At least, if you live in the US—readers elsewhere have a few more weeks of nail-biting anticipation to go.)

Being something of a cynical opportunist when it comes to blogging, I’ve been wracking my brains for a plausible link between the movie and emerging technologies.

Trouble is, I haven’t read the book, and it’s one of those scary ones that is thick enough to build houses with!

So, I compromised, and asked my thirteen-year-old daughter Bethany—and long-time fan of the Twilight series—to write the blog for me ☺ Read the rest of this entry »

Why clever people believe stupid things

November 9, 2008

Making sense of scientific information

Amazon.comWhile I was in the UK recently, I picked up a copy of Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science on a tip from a friend.  Ben is a medical doctor and writer for The Guardian newspaper—and a vociferous crusader of what he sees as the misuse and misrepresentation of science.  And when he comes to communicating why science matters in a highly accessible way, he has few peers.

If you read my recent “Five Good Books” blog, you will already have seen a micro-review of Bad Science, which can be summed up pretty succinctly in three words: “buy this book.”

Bad Science is a great read… Read the rest of this entry »

Five good books

November 5, 2008

Obama and science – Essential bed-time reading for the next Administration

Finally, the campaigning is over, everyone knows more about fruit flies than they ever wanted to (thank you Sarah Palin), and on an historic day America has “voted for change.”  As the country looks forward to a radical change in leadership, the coming weeks are going to be wall-to-wall analysis of what an Obama administration will mean for everything from the economy to energy.  And will be there in the thick of things.  But after a heavy night of vote-watching, I thought something a little lighter was in order.

So here as an antidote to election fatigue are five good books every “convalescing campaigner” should have by their bedside as they work on regaining their strength.  And as you might expect, I’ve thrown in a subtle but nevertheless significant emphasis on good science policy. Read the rest of this entry »

Talking Nano

October 16, 2008

Whoever would have thought a science juggling act could be so much fun?  Or so informative?  Yet a couple of weeks back I found myself grinning like a ten year-old as I sat reviewing a new set of nanotech DVDs.  The culprit: “The Amazing Nano Brothers Juggling Show;” one of the highlights of Talking Nano-a just-released set of six professionally produced educational DVDs on nanotechnology from the Nanoscale Informal Science and Engineering (NISE) Network.

Talking Nano attempts to bring the mysteries of nanotechnology to the masses.  And it does this pretty well… Read the rest of this entry »

Small particles are sexy; Synthetic biologists are sexier!

September 30, 2008


The October issue of Esquire magazine is remarkable.  Not for the world’s first e-ink cover (appearing on limited special editions of the magazine).  But because three of the five scientists featured amongst the seventy-five most influential people of the twenty first century are synthetic biologistsRead the rest of this entry »

Decoupling “nanotechnology”

May 17, 2008

“Nanotechnology” as an overarching concept is great for sweeping statements and sound bites, but falls short when it comes to real-world decision-making.  As nanoscale technologies are increasingly used in everything from antimicrobial socks to anti-cancer drugs, perhaps its time to rethink how we talk about the myriad diverse technologies that fall, slip or are forcibly squeezed under this all-encompassing banner. Read the rest of this entry »

Enough meetings already!

May 8, 2008

My worst nightmare—I’m sitting at the back of a small plane (by the bathroom), my knees up round my ears (because someone else with a bigger case got to the overhead storage before me), and a small child screaming its head off two rows down.  But unlike a nightmare, this is reality, and waking up to a better life is not an option!  What did I do to deserve this?  The polite answer—agree to speak at yet another nano-meeting! Read the rest of this entry »

Of jellybeans and buckyballs…

April 13, 2008

Here’s a small diversion for a slow Sunday afternoon:  Take sixty jellybeans and ninety cocktail sticks, and try to construct a model of a buckyball—a carbon-60 molecule.  It’s tricky, but not impossible.

Constructing a candy buckminster fullerene is one of ten nano “experiments” in a new nanotechnology education kit from nanobits. Designed to enthuse and inform kids in school and at home about nanotechnology, the nanobits kit grew out of Nanovic (Nanotechnology Victoria Ltd.)—an Australian initiative to translate nanotechnology research into commercial applications. Read the rest of this entry »

The passing of a science hero

March 19, 2008

On March 18th, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke died in his home in Sri Lanka at the age of 90.  A master developer and assembler of ideas, Clarke will be remembered fondly by many for igniting their enthusiasm for science, and how it might be used to better our lives.  His passing leaves a hole in the ranks of science heroes who inspire us to look beyond the obvious, and question the unquestionable.

My early childhood was full of the stories of Clarke, Asimov and others, and without a doubt these writers set me on a path to exploring how the world works and how we can extend our reach with this knowledge.  Clarke had the knack of taking what was known, and pushing it that little bit further into the realms of the “what if…?”.  In doing so, he was the perfect foil to the established scientific community; asking the questions others shied away from and stimulating the process of discovery and development afresh.  But he also excelled at raising scientific consciousness across the board, and sowing the seeds of effective and informed science engagement. Read the rest of this entry »

Communicating nanotechnology: Image counts!

February 8, 2008

What determines your view of nanotechnology—the message, or the messenger?  Most of us would like to think it is the message that governs our internal risk-benefit analysis.  But research published this week suggests other factors may be at work.

Dan Kahan at Yale Law School and his colleagues are shaking up our ideas on effective communication and engagement when it comes to complex issues like emerging nanotechnologies.  They have already demonstrated what many jaded science communicators have learned the hard way—that shouting louder and longer about the facts doesn’t necessarily lead to “right-minded” thinking in the general population.*  In their latest study (available here) they show that when it comes to balancing possible nanotechnology benefits and risks, the messenger is quite possibly as important as the message. Read the rest of this entry »

Labels of contention

February 1, 2008

Labeling – is there anything more contentious in the safe nanotech debate?  Some are fearful that too much knowledge will confuse and worry muddle-headed consumers.  Others can only see the marketing opportunities of a “nano-inside” label. Then you have the nano-doomsday merchants, who seemingly would like nothing better than to slap a bright yellow nano-hazard sticker on all things small.

And of course, we cannot forget those “magic” nano products – not the surface treatment that allegedly messed people’s lungs up (which was neither magic, nor nano) – but those items which miraculously change from “nano-enabled” to “nano-no-more” at the wave of a marketing executive’s wand. Read the rest of this entry »

Animating the small stuff

December 1, 2007

Are nanotechnology Grand Challenges too grand for you?  Do Strategic Research Frameworks lead to you contemple a strategic withdrawal?  Have you prioritized just one too many research needs?  You are clearly in need of The Adventures of Nanoman—now available on YouTube. Read the rest of this entry »