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.

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 »

Indecent exposure

December 1, 2008

Navigating the minefield of airborne nanoparticle exposure

cnt-handling-smallNanotechnology—like other emerging technologies—presents a dilemma:  If you’re making new substances with uncertain health risks, how low is low enough when it comes to managing exposure?

The issue is raised in the current edition of Nature Nanotechnology by Vladimir Murashov of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and former NIOSH-director John Howard.  But the question has been bubbling along for some time.

And it’s an important one.  Uncertainty over safe workplace practices is bad news for nanotech businesses trying to do the right thing—especially small start-ups that don’t have the resources to work out their own bespoke solutions.  It’s not much better for regulators—as the gap between emerging technologies and solid information on their safe use widens, how do you craft new approaches to protecting people’s health and the environment? 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 »

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 »

Nanotechnology and cosmetics

November 6, 2008

UK Consumer Organization Which? Releases New Report

Who needs an emerging technologies blog when you have The Daily Mail?  For those of you that missed it, Wednesday’s on-line issue of the British tabloid newspaper highlighted

“The beauty creams with nanoparticles that could poison your body”

I’m so glad someone’s tracking this issue, while us folks over on the other side of the pond are dealing with the considerably less-interesting issues surrounding the incoming Obama administration.  The only trouble is, the Mail didn’t quite get it right.  In fact on a scale of 1 – 10, I’m not even sure they even make it to first base… Read the rest of this entry »

Shaking up the nano-food debate

October 20, 2008

Is the RBC Life Sciences® nanotechnology product Slim Shake approved for use by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?  According to the BBC Radio 4 science program Frontiers—broadcast on Monday evening—there may be some doubt.  But I get ahead of myself.

The US-based company RBC Life Sciences® sells a range of dietary supplements and food products allegedly based on nanotechnology—8 of them are listed in the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies public inventory of nanotech-enabled consumer products.  As with many of the products in the inventory, it’s hard to tell whether they are truly using nanotechnology, and even harder to tell what steps have been made to assure their safety.  But Monday’s edition of Frontiers shed a little light on this issue… 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 »

Benny the Bear comes clean

June 28, 2008

Last December I highlighted the case of Benny the Bear—a soft toy using nano-silver to give it antimicrobial properties (Benny the Bear, and the case of the disappearing nanoparticles). It appeared at the time that the manufacturer was being rather coy about the use of nanotechnology, leading to me suggesting: “perhaps it’s time for Benny to come clean.”

Well, come clean he has.  And the revelation: Benny really is silver-free—uncertainty over risks, regulation and public acceptance led to the manufacturer to find a non-nano alternative.

Read the rest of this entry »

Enough meetings already!

May 8, 2008

My worst nightmare—I’m sitting at the back of a small plane (by the bathroom), my knees up round my ears (because someone else with a bigger case got to the overhead storage before me), and a small child screaming its head off two rows down.  But unlike a nightmare, this is reality, and waking up to a better life is not an option!  What did I do to deserve this?  The polite answer—agree to speak at yet another nano-meeting! 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 »

I’m breathing in nanoparticles, so why aren’t I dead already?

April 5, 2008

Read some accounts of nanotechnology risks, and you might be forgiven for concluding that a single engineered nanoparticle can kill you.  Of course, a little critical thinking soon dispels this notion—we are constantly bombarded with incidental nanoparticles from sources that include cars, incinerators and fires; we have been since birth.  And as critics of “risk extremists” often point out, we seem to be doing just fine in this nano-rich environment.  But does this mean that the potential risks associated with engineered nanoparticles are little more than a myth?

This was the question I faced while writing an opinions piece for the latest issue of Nano Today.  It’s a question that’s constantly popping up, either because someone has forgotten (or never realized) that nanoparticle exposure is a fact of life, or as a justification for not worrying about the engineered varieties of nanoparticles. Read the rest of this entry »

Communicating nanotechnology: Image counts!

February 8, 2008

What determines your view of nanotechnology—the message, or the messenger?  Most of us would like to think it is the message that governs our internal risk-benefit analysis.  But research published this week suggests other factors may be at work.

Dan Kahan at Yale Law School and his colleagues are shaking up our ideas on effective communication and engagement when it comes to complex issues like emerging nanotechnologies.  They have already demonstrated what many jaded science communicators have learned the hard way—that shouting louder and longer about the facts doesn’t necessarily lead to “right-minded” thinking in the general population.*  In their latest study (available here) they show that when it comes to balancing possible nanotechnology benefits and risks, the messenger is quite possibly as important as the message. 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 »

Nanotechnology and the God of Small Things

January 12, 2008

With apologies to Arundhati Roi for “borrowing” the title of her moving book, what—if anything—has nanotechnology got to do with religion?

Barnaby Feder of the New York Times takes on this issue in his latest posting to the Bits blog:

“There may not be a lot of agreement among the world’s religions on exactly what constitutes humans “playing God,” but you never hear a preacher or rabbi suggesting such behavior is wise or laudable. So you would think they might have a lot to say about nanotechnology. After all, nanotech involves rearranging not just DNA and the other building blocks of life — already a source of controversy in biotechnology — but the very atoms and molecules that make up all matter. If that is not messing around in God’s closet, what is?”

The big issue it seems is transhumanism—the use of existing and emerging technologies, including nanotechnology, to extend and change what it means to be human.  Will nanotechnology give us the ability to do what only God should?  Can we somehow thwart God’s plans, and take control of our own destiny?  Or is there nano-knowledge that should be forbidden? Read the rest of this entry »

Nanotechnology: The cause, the cure, and the spin-off product

January 11, 2008

What do Alzheimers and body armour have in common?  The answer could lie in the structures formed when proteins self-assemble at the nanoscale.

At the end of last year, The Daily Telegraph Science Editor Roger Highfield wrote in an article:

“The protein linked with Alzheimer’s disease has inspired the design of “nanoyarns” that could be put to a vast range of uses, from body armour to parachutes and super strong nets.”

The research, published in the journal Science by Tuomas Knowles and other members of Mark Welland’s team at the University of Cambridge (U.K.), studied the properties of nanometre-diameter fibrils formed from misfolding proteins.  In tests, these fibrils showed the potential to outperform many conventional natural materials, leading to Knowles and colleagues referring to them as “a class of high performance biomaterials”.  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 »

Nano’s silver lining is… Blue?

December 22, 2007

So you’ve developed an obsessive nano-silver Benny the Bear paw-chewing habit, and on the advice of your hairdresser, you’re quaffing silver nanoparticle suspensions by the pint.  What do you get?

Well, according to a story airing on CNN this week, what you get is… blue skin! Read the rest of this entry »

Benny the Bear, and the case of the disappearing nanoparticles

December 15, 2007

Let me introduce you to Benny the Bear. Benny is a rather cute cuddly toy sold by the U.S. company Pure Plushy—we met at a meeting of the U.S. Congressional Nanotech Caucus a few weeks back. His claim to fame is a resistance to moulds, mites and bacteria. 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 »

Animating the small stuff

December 1, 2007

Are nanotechnology Grand Challenges too grand for you?  Do Strategic Research Frameworks lead to you contemple a strategic withdrawal?  Have you prioritized just one too many research needs?  You are clearly in need of The Adventures of Nanoman—now available on YouTube. Read the rest of this entry »

Are we on a nanotechnology joyride?

November 25, 2007

Are we so caught up in the thrill of nanotechnology, that we are blind to future pitfalls?  Are we having the new technology ride of our lives—with someone else’s future?  Are we living for the nanotech moment, and leaving the consequences to others to deal with?  In short, are we on a nanotechnology joyride? 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 »

Invest in nano applications, and the risks will take care of themselves?

November 4, 2007

I have on my desk a plastic bag of carbon nanotubes—2 grams of dry, 60% purity single walled carbon nanotubes to be precise—bought from Cheap Tubes Inc. for the princely sum of $80.  And I am wondering what to do with them. Read the rest of this entry »

Nanotechnology in context – Size matter

November 1, 2007

In July 2007, a specially convened task force of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that size does in fact matter (FDA 2007).  The focus of the task force was not on the importance of “largeness”, but rather on the technology of the unimaginably small—nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is the technology of manipulating matter at near-atomic levels; typically, but not exclusively, within the size range of 1 – 100 nanometers.  Working at this scale, it becomes possible to combine materials in ways and forms unimaginable more than a few decades ago.  Imagine the contrast between eighteenth century surgery and modern microsurgery, and you begin to get an idea of what this emerging technology offers.

According to the FDA task force, “properties of a material relevant to the safety and (as applicable) effectiveness of FDA-regulated products might change repeatedly as size enters into or varies within the nanoscale range”. But as Professor James Moor and Professor John Wecker point out in the Spring 2007 edition of Medical Ethics [PDF, 805 KB], nanotechnology not only raises safety and regulatory issues, but ethical questions as well (Moor and Wecker 2007). Read the rest of this entry »

“Selling out” on nanotechnology outreach

October 27, 2007

Somewhere, I must have taken a wrong turn in my life.  Three years ago, I was a serious scientist, doing research no-one understood, and writing papers no-one read. Now I find myself making videos about cream cakes.

It all started to go amiss when I got mixed up with a crowd with crazy ideas about engaging people on science.  First it was the small stuff—being interviewed by ten-year-olds about nanotechnology.  Before I knew it I was writing letters to fictional characters about nanotechnology policy (I’m still waiting for an answer from Arthur Weasley by the way…).  But this week I hit rock bottom: a video extolling the educational potential of an American artificial cream-stuffed sponge cake—the Twinkie! Read the rest of this entry »

People breathing in nanoparticles? Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman!

October 8, 2007

Admit it-deep down, your don’t really believe people will be exposed to engineered nanomaterials.  After all, most nanomaterials will be made in enclosed reactors, handled as precious commodities where not a particle can be spared, and irreversibly incorporated into a bewildering array of products.  And those that do start their life as nanoparticles will clump together in the blink of an eye, becoming nano-no-more before anyone can breathe them, touch them or (goodness forbid) eat them!

At least, that is how the argument goes.  Read the rest of this entry »