January 13, 2009
Public engagement was a key feature in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and has been front and foremost in the transition between the old administration and the new. You only have to check out change.gov to see how ideas are evolving on soliciting and evaluating opinions from a broad swath of the population. The latest is the “Citizens Briefing Book”—top-rated ideas from everyday people, to be delivered to Obama after he is sworn in.
This emphasis on open government, citizen engagement, and the use of enabling web-based technology, is expected to spill over to the new administration big-time. And as it does, the public discourse will inevitably encompass science and technology—it already has on the incoming administration’s website. But this raises serious questions: How do you pull people from all walks of life into conversations about science and technology—which are often complex—and how do you empower them to participate in making effective and influential decisions?
These are questions that have been grappled with in the US for some time—not least in the area of nanotechnology. The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 for instance had specific provisions
“for public input and outreach to be integrated into the [National Nanotechnology] Program by the convening of regular and ongoing public discussions, through mechanisms such as citizens’ panels, consensus conferences, and educational events, as appropriate.”
This resulted in two academic Centers for Nanotechnology and Society being established—one at Arizona State University and another at the University of California Santa Barbara. But apart from the research conducted by these centers, there has been little in the way of true public engagement on nanotechnology in the US, in terms of enabling citizens to enter a two-way dialogue with decision-makers.
Which is why I was particularly interested to read Richard Jones’ account of the UK experience, just posted on his blog Soft Machines.
Richard’s blog is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in public engagement on science, and to make sure you do read it, I’m not going to give away much here. Read the rest of this entry »
December 31, 2008
Science gone right, science gone wrong, science gone social, science gone political—it’s all here in five off-beat book recommendations to kick off 2009. Ranging from Darwin’s Origin of Species to Sir Terry Pratchett’s Nation, the one thing I think I can guarantee is that you will struggle to find an odder bunch of literary bed-fellows! Hope you enjoy them, and have a happy new year!
A new year, a new leaf—time for five more eclectic (some might say eccentric) book recommendations to see you through the hangover and into a brighter future.
As in the previous five good books blog, I’ve eschewed the conventional to provide as unusual a potpourri of literary delights as you will find anywhere. And as before, I’ve tried to inject a little method into the madness—spot it if you can!
I should first apologize because this was supposed to be a quick blog, rushed off before the New Years festivities began in earnest. But it turned into a veritable “slow blog!”
So for those of you impatient to read the recommendations and move on, here they are:
- On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
- The Two Cultures, by C. P. Snow
- Trouble with Lichen, by John Wyndham
- Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee
- Nation, by Sir Terry Pratchett
But please do read on, and discover the why behind the what… Read the rest of this entry »
December 24, 2008
Revisiting Sheila Jasanoff’s Technologies of Humility
In 2003, Harvard University’s Sheila Jasanoff wrote about what she termed “Technologies of Humility.” Recognizing the growing disconnect between technological progress and its effective governance, Jasanoff explored new approaches to decision-making that “seek to integrate the ‘can-do’ orientation of science and engineering with the ‘should-do’ questions of ethical and political analysis.” Five years on, her (still radical) ideas resonate deeply with the science and technology ambitions of the incoming Obama administration.
Sitting down this morning, I had intended to write about three papers recently published on-line in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. The papers (by Kahan et al., Pidgeon et al. and Sheufele et al.)—which were widely reported on a few weeks back—consider factors influencing “public” responses to nanotechnology, and challenge long-held beliefs that knowledge leads to acceptance.
However, I became distracted! Searching for an original frame for these studies, I returned to Jasanoff’s 2003 paper “Technologies of Humility: Citizen participation in governing Science,” published in the journal Minerva (Minerva 41:223-244). Reading it, I was struck afresh by how germane Jasanoff’s ideas are, how completely they seemed to have been ignored in US policy making, and how important they are to the science and technology agenda of the incoming Obama administration.
Rather than read a re-hash from me of what is an eloquently written and very accessible paper, I would strongly recommend you pour yourself a glass of good wine (a cup of coffee or fine tea will do just as well), carve out some quality time, and read the original—which is downloadable from here [PDF, 120 KB]. It is after all the holiday season, and what better than a good read to fill the long hours before the grind of work begins once again!
But just in case you are in a hurry and care to put up with my crude and flawed overview, here you are: Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
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 »
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 »
October 5, 2008
The silent rave might seem a rather bizarre social phenomenon; a group of strangers converging in a public place and dancing to their own individual iPod soundtracks. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the emerging technology community has been indulging in the new tech-equivalent of silent raves for some time now.
These suspicions are probably the delusional by-product of jetlag. But travelling back from the latest in a long line of multi-stakeholder nanotechnology meetings last week, the analogy hit a chord… Read the rest of this entry »
September 30, 2008
So, you have a cool new science that could make a major impact on global challenges like energy, disease and pollution and you want to make sure it reaches its full potential. What do you do? At some point, having a heart to heart with “the public” might be a good idea. Especially if your “cool new science” involves playing around with the very building blocks of life! Read the rest of this entry »
August 21, 2008
How cool is this: A nanotech-enabled labcoat to protect the user against… well, nanomaterials presumably, amongst other things!
The labcoat—which uses Nanotex technology to make it stain resistant—is part of a major update to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Consumer Products Inventory that tracks manufacture-identified nano-products. Other eye-catchers in the update include a hunting shirt that resists bloodstains, a nanotech-based adhesive for McDonald’s burger containers, and an oven-like device for sanitizing whiffy shoes.
Of course, there are plenty of people who feel that consumer products represent an altogether too trivial side of nanotechnology. And I have to agree that on the scales of virtue, a nano-silver bidet would find it hard to compete with the next generation of nano-enabled solar cells or targeted cancer drugs. Yet trivial as many of the 800+ products in the updated inventory may seem, this is where most people will probably first come across the technology, and start to form their early opinions on whether it’s a good thing, or not so good.
And in this bizarrely-connected world within which we live, good experience with nano-bidets (for example) are more likely than not to make the introduction of nano-cancer drugs go just that little bit smoother. Read the rest of this entry »
June 13, 2008
Read Thomas L. Friedman’s “The World is Flat” or Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”, and you get a glimpse into how the hacker culture that emerged at the tail end of the twentieth century revolutionized the digital world. Will a confluence of emerging technologies—including information tech, biotech, and nanotech—lead to a similar revolution in the biological world? Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
April 25, 2008
If you want proof that nano is mainstream, just pick up the U.S. May edition of fashion magazine “Elle.” Sharing cover-space with Madonna is the latest article on nanotech and the beauty business.
Elle might not be your first choice of reading for cutting edge science, but Joanne Chen’s article “Small Wonders” is no slouch when it comes to conveying complex ideas in digestible bites. Using beauty products as examples (from hair dryers to conditioners to anti-wrinkle cream), Chen takes the reader on a journey through the wonders and worries of nano. As an exercise in making nanotechnology accessible, the article is a must-read. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
March 28, 2008
The small American town of Sunnyville is a town in crisis. Against a backdrop of job losses that have decimated the local community, citizens are struggling to decide whether to welcome two major nanotech-enabled industries into the town, or whether to reject them because the new technology might create more problems than it solves.
As if this wasn’t enough, it has just come to light that local company “Happy Home Paint” has been contaminating a neighborhood beauty spot with toxic chemicals for years, and the only way of cleaning the area without destroying it is by using a developmental nanoparticle-based technology.
Will nanotechnology revitalize this town, or will it end up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back? The locals are having a tough time deciding. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
March 6, 2008
Can current approaches to doing science sustain us over the next one hundred years? An increasing reliance on technological fixes to global challenges — including nanotechnology — demands a radical rethink of how we use science in the service of society.
Over the next century we will perhaps be facing the greatest challenge in the history of humanity: sustaining six billion plus people on a planet where natural resources are running scarce and our every action results in a palpable environmental reaction. Progress towards sustainability will only come through integrating relevant science with socially-responsible decision making. Yet the science policy dogmas of the 20th century may be stretched to breaking point in the face of 21st century challenges. Read the rest of this entry »