Late lessons from early warnings

July 20, 2008

As the rate of technological progress advances, are we learning the lessons of past successes and failures?  And are we applying these lessons successfully to nanotechnology? 

In 2001, the European Environment Agency (EEA) published a seminal report on developing emerging technologies responsibly.  Through a series of fourteen case studies spanning the past century, a panel led by the late Poul Harremoës examined what has gone right and what has gone wrong with the introduction of past technologies, and what can be learned about introducing new technologies as safely and as successfully as possible.  

The resulting report, “Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000” (PDF, 1.7 MB) draws twelve “late lessons” for decision-makers faced with addressing emerging technologies [1]. Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

Nano-sunscreens leave their mark

June 21, 2008

Painted metal roofs are cheap, convenient, and usually very durable.  But over the past two years, a rash of accelerated ageing has blighted pre-painted steel roofing in Australia.  And intriguingly the ageing—which affects the coating—seems to be localized to small patches, taking on the form of fingerprints, handprints and even footprints.

The culprit it seems is sunscreen that is spilt or otherwise transferred to the roofing by construction workers during installation. And not any old sunscreen—this would appear to be a uniquely nano phenomenon.  But I get ahead of myself… Read the rest of this entry »


Smart materials; smart choices?

May 31, 2008

Why nano?  Why care?  For non-nanotech initiates, an obsession with nanotechnology must sometimes seem a bizarre occupation of the sad and lonely.  And even within the nanotechnology community, who hasn’t had occasional doubts over the legitimacy of singling out “nano” as something special?  Yet occasionally a piece of work comes along that helps put things back into perspective.  For me, a paper just published on-line in the journal Nano Letters did exactly that. Read the rest of this entry »


Carbon nanotubes: the new asbestos? Not if we act fast.

May 21, 2008

Mix carbon nanotubes and asbestos together (metaphorically) and you get an explosive mix—at least if news coverage of the latest publication coming out of Professor Ken Donaldson’s team is anything to go by.  The research—published on-line today in Nature Nanotechnology—is the first to explicitly test the hypothesis that long carbon nanotubes behave like long asbestos fibres in the body.

In brief, the study (which I was a co-author on) used an established method to test whether a fibrous material has the potential to lead to the disease mesothelioma—a cancer of the outer lining of the lungs that can take decades to develop following exposure.  In the method, samples of material are injected into the abdominal space of mice, where inflammation and the formation of granulomas in the lining tissue (the mesothelium) are studied over a seven-day period.  Previous research has established that the combined presence of fibres, inflammation and granulomas is a very strong indicator that mesothelioma will occur in the long-term.  While the method uses lining of the abdominal space, it is highly predictive of what happens in the same tissue surrounding the lungs, if it is exposed to durable fibres. Read 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 »


Nano-silver: Looking a little tarnished?

May 2, 2008

The author Neal Stephenson got it wrong—at least, if this week’s nano-news is anything to go by!   In his landmark 1995 novel “The Diamond Age,” Stephenson described a future built on nano-innovation.  But thirteen years later, nanotechnology seems to be ushering in “The Silver Age.”  And to some it’s looking a little tarnished.

First we had Cal Baier-Anderson’s entry on the Environmental Defence Fund nanotech blog, calling claims that bacteria cannot develop resistance to silver “not only false, but dangerous.”  Two days later, the International Center for Technology Assessment (CTA) filed a petition with the USEPA requesting the agency regulate nano-silver products as pesticides.  And to top it all, Washington Post science writer Rick Weiss completed the hat trick with a story on nano-silver in Friday’s edition of the paper. Read the rest of this entry »


U.S. nanotechnology risk research funding—separating fact from fiction

April 18, 2008

The most recent estimate from the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) puts nanotechnology risk research investment at $68 million for 2006 (the only year complete figures are currently available for—apparently).  Yet theProject on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) has just completed its own assessment—and could only find $13 million associated with research projects primarily focused on addressing nanotechnology risk in the same year.  What gives—are the feds indulging in a bit of creative accounting; or have PEN forgotten the basic rules of arithmetic?

Let’s be honest, I’m not a great fan of bean-counting.  Evaluating research in terms of dollars invested (or Pounds or Euros) is a crude tool at the best of times.  But when it comes to assessing investments and returns, the fact is that bottom-line figures count.   Read the rest of this entry »