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 www.synbioproject.org.  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 »


Twilight

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 »