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 »

Getting to grips with nanomaterial toxicity

December 15, 2008

Introducing MINChar—a new community initiative to support effective material characterization in nanotoxicity studies.

logo_simpleHere’s a tough one:  Imagine you have a new substance—call it substance X—and you run some tests to see how toxic it is.  But you’re not quite sure what substance X is.

You know that it is a powder, and it is supposed to have chemicals x y and z somewhere in it.  But you don’t know how small the particles are, what shape they are, whether chemical z is on the surface of the particles or inside them, whether the particles all clump together when shoved into the test system or whether they can’t get far enough away from each other after being administered, or whether there is something else present in substance X that really shouldn’t be there.

Now imagine your tests show that substance X looks like it could be rather dangerous.  How do identify which aspect of the material is causing the problem, so you can go about fixing it?

Or imagine someone else wants to repeat your work.  Or they want to compare your data with another study.  How do you know that the substance being used in other studies is the same as substance X, and not simply a crude approximation?

The scenario is somewhat hypothetical, but the issues are very real.  And they have dogged the field of nanotoxicology for over a decade. 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 »

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 »

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 »