A red-letter day for science and technology

January 20, 2009

As Barack Obama takes the oath and is inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States, many are anticipating a new era of socially relevant science and technology.  Having run one of the most technologically savvy campaigns in recent times—possibly ever—Obama’s transition teams continued to break new ground in using technology up open up the process of government.  And throughout the campaign and transition, there has been an emphasis on scientific integrity, and using science and technology in the service of society.

The trick is going to be to maintain this momentum in the new administration.  Obama has surrounded himself with a top-notch group of science and technology advisors, and this, combined with a desire to get science and technology back on track, bodes well for the new Presidency.  As BBC News reported this morning, scientists are optimistic that Obama has what it takes to reposition science and technology within government and society.  And yesterday’s USA Today noted that “Scientists are hopeful that Obama, who has called for increased research spending, will bring a new dawn [to science].”

Of course, realizing the promise of a new scientific dawn will not be easy.  Where will the money come from?  What should the top priorities be?  Will robust long-term science strategies be established?  How will citizens be effectively engaged in the science and technology enterprise?

The USA Today piece explores some of these concerns (and does it well), and in the weeks and months to come, these and other issues will be aired more fully as the euphoria of Obama’s election dies down and reality sets.

But today, it’s time to celebrate the inauguration of a new president who has repeatedly emphasized the importance of science and technology for everyone.

On that note, rather than continuing to pompously pontificate on science and technology in the new administration, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the historic events of the day.

And in the spirit of a social media-savvy [soon not to be] president-elect, I will be eschewing the crowds of DC, and following the inauguration on the web.  You can follow 2020science and others on Twitter as the day proceeds—just use the tag #inaug09.

Have a great inauguration day!

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A note on the image.

I’ve been looking for an excuse to use the Nanobama image since it hit the headlines some weeks back.  The image, made by John Hart, Sameh Tawfick, Michael De Volder, and Will Walker, was constructed from an etched “forest” of carbon nanotubes.  Given the science and technology focus of the new administration, this seemed a great reminder of the potential of emerging technologies, and the challenges of translating that potential into safe and successful solutions to real issues.


Five more good books

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 »



Obama – staking out a science and technology presidency

December 20, 2008

John Holdren is confirmed as the next Assistant to the President for Science and Technology

Barack Obama is serious about science and technology.  It was clear in the campaign; clear in the President-Elect’s policies, and doubly clear in the speed with which he has established scientific leadership for the incoming administration.

Today’s official announcement that John Holdren is being appointed Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (which in addition to re-establishing a cabinet-level S&T asvisor, includes Hodren being Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology), puts the finishing touches to what many would consider a “dream team” for leading science and technology that serves society.

But just as important as the team is the philosophy behind it.  In today’s address (which as usual is viewable on YouTube), Obama emphasized clearly the importance of science and technology in tackling national and global challenges: Read the rest of this entry »


John Holdren – Obama’s new science advisor?

December 18, 2008

Reports are coming in that Professor John Holdren – director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the Kennedy School, University of Harvard – is Barack Obama’s pick for science advisor, and head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Read the rest of this entry »


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 »


Tough love for science and technology innovation

December 10, 2008

The National Research Council of the National Academies releases its review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health, and Safety Research.  And it’s not pretty.

Most people acknowledge that innovation is vital to economic and social prosperity.  But what do you do when science and technology innovation are in danger of being stymied by bad habits and misguided thinking?  One solution: apply a little tough love.  Something a new report from the US National Academies does in spades.

By the end of the next US administration, there will be an estimated seven billion people on the planet, all wanting food, shelter, and water, and most of them striving for a first-world quality of life.  With dwindling natural resources and an environment struggling to absorb humanity’s assaults, old technologies are coming to the end of their shelf life.   Energy security, curing cancer, quality of life in old age, plentiful clean water, climate change—none of these challenges will be met without science and technology innovation.

More to the point, without a constant stream of science and technology innovation, the economy will be starved of the knowledge-capital so desperately needed for stability and growth.

Given this backdrop, you would think that the US federal government would be on top of spotting and navigating around potential barriers to innovation.  Yet according to a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academies, the feds seem to have their collective heads in the sand when it comes to ensuring investment in science and technology research delivers sustainable results… Read the rest of this entry »


Nanotechnology and the G20 emergency summit

November 15, 2008

Do emerging technologies have a place at the table?

As world leaders congregate in Washington DC this weekend for the G20 summit on the global financial crisis, discussions will be informed in part by what has been described as the “biggest brainstorming on the global agenda that has ever taken place.”  I mention this because a small but nevertheless significant part of that brainstorm involved nanotechnology.

The brainstorm in question was the inaugural Summit on the Global Agenda, organized by the World Economic Forum and held in Dubai last weekend.  The summit brought together “the 700 most knowledgeable people related to 68 global challenges” (WEF’s words) to address two questions… Read the rest of this entry »


Synthetic biology: Lessons from synthetic chemistry

November 13, 2008

Looking back to chart a course to the future

This coming lunchtime*, former New York Times columnist Denise Caruso will discuss the promise and pit-falls of synthetic biology with Center for American Progress senior fellow and former Washington Post science reporter Rick Weiss.  Given the track record of both participants, I’m anticipating a stimulating and spirited discussion, which will draw on Caruso’s just-published article on an overview and recommendations for anticipating and addressing emerging risks from synthetic biology.

But rather than focus on Denise’s piece [which as you would expect from a talented writer, speaks quite eloquently enough for itself], I thought I would provide a slice of back-story to synthetic biology.  And to do this, I want to use a rather good paper published last year by Brian Yeh and Wendell Lim (of the University of California San Francisco)… Read the rest of this entry »


Taking a fresh look at nanomaterials

November 11, 2008

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report on Novel Materials

Imagine for one naïve moment that we have a pretty good handle on managing the environmental impact of existing manufactured “stuff”.  Then someone comes along and invents some “new stuff” that behaves very differently from the “old stuff.”

How can we be sure that the frameworks and mechanisms in place for preventing harm to the environment will work for the new stuff?  And where they are strained to breaking point, how do we go about fixing the system?

These are two questions addressed in a new report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution—an independent British standing body established in 1970 to advise the Queen, government, Parliament and the public on environmental issues… Read the rest of this entry »


Science under an Obama Administration

November 11, 2008

Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse on his hopes for the future

Amidst intensifying discussions over what the incoming Obama administration will mean for science and technology, an opinion piece in today’s Telegraph caught my eye this morning.  Written by Sir Paul Nurse—Nobel Laureate and president of the Rockefeller University in New York—it provides a clear articulation of Obama’s campaign pledges, the challenges he faces in realizing them, and impact they could have on the US and beyond if he succeeds.

I usually eschew reproducing other people’s stuff here without adding my own perspective, but in this case, Nurse’s words speak for themselves… 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 2020science.org 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 »


Five slightly harder pieces—underpinning sound science policy

October 26, 2008

With just over a week to go before the 2008 US presidential election, there’s no shortage of opinions floating around on the key science and technology-related challenges facing an incoming Obama or McCain administration.  But while advice swirls around issues like nanotechnology, synthetic biology, the environment, and establishing a top-level presidential science adviser as fast as possible, there is less talk about overarching goals that will underpin the science and technology policy agenda for the next four years… Read the rest of this entry »


Presidential Choice: It’s the science, stupid!

September 24, 2008

Forget the economy, healthcare, the war in Iraq.  For some, the next President of the United States will need to rise to a far higher bar:  Is he an e-mail junkie, or still stuck on snail mail?

John McCain’s lack of e-mail-savvy was the butt of recent Obama/Biden campaign ads.  “Things have changed in the last 26 years.  But McCain hasn’t” goes the refrain.  The subtext: if voted in as leader of the free world, could he actually lead in a technology-dependent society?  In contrast, Barack Obama’s online social networking campaign-orchestrated by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes-promises a truly plugged-in president.

Yet strip away the superficiality and there is something missing in both campaigns-where is the science that will support the technology needed to keep America great in the 21st century? Read the rest of this entry »


2020 Science – looking forward with clarity

September 21, 2008

I’m sitting here putting the finishing touches to 2020science.org—a new science blog—and having the latest in a long stream of panic attacks: What on earth am I doing? Who wants to read yet another tedious list of personal musings, what makes me think I have anything interesting to say, and where did I get the delusion that I can actually write anyway?

As I type this, the answers are crystal clear: Everyone’s surely too busy to read yet another blog (especially one biased towards responsible science and technology); in the cold light of reality I most likely have the wit of a 5 watt light bulb; and I should have listened to my freshman college tutor, who was definitely under no illusion about whether I could write!

Yet under the remote possibility that my perception is temporarily impaired, it’s worth examining exactly why I am putting myself through this ordeal. Read the rest of this entry »


Nano-silver: Old problems or new challenges?

September 9, 2008

Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

The blogging community is no stranger to the use (and possible abuse) of nanometre-scale silver—products ranging from silver-enhanced socks and toothpaste to plush toys and cure-alls have all appeared in the spotlight recently. With each passing month, the number of nano-silver gizmos on the market is growing.

Back in March 2006 when the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Consumer Products Inventory was launched, there were 25 products claiming to use nanoscale silver. In contrast, the August 2008 update of the inventory brought the number of nano-silver containing products to 235—an increase of nearly ten times over two and a half years!

Read the rest of this entry »


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 »


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 »


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 »


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 »


Synthetic biology and nanotechnology

January 26, 2008

The popular computer game “SimLife” allows users to create and manipulate virtual people.  But what are the chances of us one day being able to do the same with real organisms: building new life-forms out of basic chemicals, so “SimLife” becomes “SynLife”?

This week’s announcement by J. Craig Venter’s team (and the associated paper in Science) that they have successfully synthesized the complete genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium is an important step towards achieving what is becoming known as “synthetic biology”.  By constructing complete DNA sequences from scratch, the door is being opened to transforming common laboratory chemicals into new living organisms; that are engineered with specific purposes in mind.  And perhaps not surprisingly, this manipulation of DNA at the nanoscale is increasingly being seen as part of the “nanotechnology revolution”.

But is synthetic biology really nanotechnology? Read the rest of this entry »


$7 billion on nanotech R&D, and what do we have to show for it?

January 4, 2008

In 2004, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) had a strategy – and it was OK.  But what has happened since then?  Has progress been made against planned actions?  What have been the major challenges to progress?  Have effective solutions been found?  And how have the lessons and experiences of the last three years influenced strategic nano-thinking in the government?

You might be forgiven for supposing that the updated Strategic Plan – published this week – holds the answers.  No such luck! Read the rest of this entry »


Drinking at the champagne bar of modern science

December 8, 2007

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? Read the rest of this entry »


Overseeing nanotechnology development

November 18, 2007

If you’ve ever wondered how to deal with the complexities of regulating a twenty first century technology like nanotechnology, wonder no more.  Last week, President Bush’s top advisors on science and the environment published a set of principles for nanotechnology environment, health and safety oversight. Read the rest of this entry »


Nanotechnologies of humility

November 11, 2007

Some nanotechnology events should come with a health warning, perhaps along the lines of: “This meeting could seriously alter your perspective”.  Because nanotechnology crosses such diverse areas of interest and expertise, there is a danger of being exposed to ideas that are radically different from your own.  And where exposure occurs, “infection” becomes an issue. Read the rest of this entry »