Category Archives: public perceptions

Nanotechnology Policy and Regulation in Canada, Australia, the European Union, the UK, and the US: a timeline for us all

The Timeline: Nanotechnology Policy and Regulation in Canada, Australia, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States (PDF; h/t July 10, 2014 news item on Nanowerk) issued by the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP) takes as its starting point the invention of the field emission microscope in 1936 by Erwin Wilhelm Müller.

This fascinating 40 pp document seems comprehensive to me. While the title suggests otherwise, there are a few mentions of events involving Asian countries and they also include the Berkeley bylaw governing nanotechnology manufacture in the city. From the Timeline, p. 16 (Note: The formatting has been changed significantly),

The City of Berkeley (US)
December 2006

The Berkeley Municipal Code is amended to introduce new measures regarding manufactured nanomaterial health and safety

These amendments require facilities that manufacture or use nanomaterials to disclose in writing which nanomaterials are being used as well as the current toxicology of the materials reported (to the extent known) and to further describe how the facility will safely handle, monitor, contain, dispose, track inventory, prevent releases and mitigate such materials.

Berkeley is currently the only municipal government in the United States to regulate nanotechnology

While searching a month ago (June 2014), I was having difficulty finding information online about the Berkeley bylaw, so this was a delightful surprise.

There is (arguably) an omission and that is the Yale Law School Cultural Cognition Project. The Yale researchers have done some influential work about emerging technologies, including a special nanotechnology project devised in the aftermath of the Berkeley bylaw. Their focus then and now has been on public perceptions and attitudes as they affect policy.

Given how many public perception projects there have been and the timeline’s specific focus on regulation and policy, it’s understandable that not many have been included in the timeline.

Still, I was curious to see if the 2012 nanosunscreen debacle in Australia would be included in the timeline. It was not and, given that this incident didn’t directly involve policy or regulation, it’s understandable. Still, I would like to suggest its inclusion in future iterations. (For the curious, my Feb. 9, 2012 posting titled: Unintended consequences: Australians not using sunscreens to avoid nanoparticles? offers a summary and links to this story about an Australian government survey and some unexpected and dismaying results.)

The timeline appears to have a publication date of April 2014 and was compiled by Alin Charrière and Beth Dunning. It is a ‘living’ document so it will be updated in the future. If you have any comments, [email protected] (I will be sending mine soon.)

It is one of a series which includes two other technologies, Synthetic biology and Bioenergy, at this point (July 10, 2014). You can go here for more about the ISSP.

Finally, bravo and bravo to Charrière and Dunning for a job well done.

Graphene hype; the emerging story in an interview with Carla Alvial Palavicino (University of Twente, Netherlands)

i’m delighted to be publishing this interview with Carla Alvial Palavicino, PhD student at the University of Twente (Netherlands), as she is working on the topicof  graphene ‘hype’. Here’s a bit more about the work from her University of Twente webpage (Note: A link has been removed),

From its origins the field of nanotechnology has been populated of expectations. Pictured as “the new industrial revolution” the economic promise holds strong, but also nanotechnologies as a cure for almost all the human ills, sustainers of future growth, prosperity and happiness. In contrast to these promises, the uncertainties associated to the introduction of such a new and revolutionary technology, and mainly risks of nanomaterials, have elicited concerns among governments and the public. Nevertheless, the case of the public can be characterized as concerns about concerns, based on the experience of previous innovations (GMO, etc.).

Expectations, both as promises and concerns, have played and continue playing a central role in the “real-time social and political constitution of nanotechnology” (Kearnes and Macnaghten 2006). A circulation of visions, promises and concerns in observed in the field, from the broadly defined umbrella promises to more specific expectations, and references to grand challenges as moral imperatives. These expectations have become such an important part of the social repertoire of nano applications that we observe the proliferation of systematic and intentional modes of expectation building such as roadmaps, technology assessment, etc.; as well as a considerable group of reports on risk, concerns, and ethical and social aspects. This different modes of expectation building (Konrad 2010) co-exist and contribute to the articulation of the nano field.

This project seeks to identify, characterize and contextualize the existing modes of expectations building, being those intentional (i.e. foresight, TA, etc.) or implicit in arenas of public discourse, associated to ongoing and emerging social processes in the context of socio-technical change.

This dynamics are being explored in relation to the new material graphene.

Before getting to the interview, here’s Alvial Palavicino’s biography,

Carla Alvial Palavicino has a bachelor degree in Molecular Biology Engineering, School of Science, University of Chile, Chile and a Master’s degree on Sustainability Sciences, Graduate School of Frontier Science, University of Tokyo, Japan. She has worked in technology transfer and more recently, in Smart Grids and local scale renewable energy provision.

Finally, here’s the interview (Note: At the author’s request, there have been some grammatical changes made to conform with Canadian English.),

  • What is it that interests you about the ‘hype’ that some technologies receive and how did you come to focus on graphene in particular?

My research belongs to a field called the Sociology of Expectations, which deals with the role of promises, visions, concerns and ideas of the future in the development of technologies, and how these ideas actually affect people’s strategies in technology development. Part of the dynamic found for these expectations are hype-disappointment cycles, much like the ones the Gartner Group uses. And hype has become an expectation itself; people expect that there will be too many promises and some, maybe many of them are not going to be fulfilled, followed by disappointment.

I came to know about graphene because, initially, I was broadly interested in nanoelectronics (my research project is part of NanoNextNL a large Dutch Nano research programme), due to the strong future orientation in the electronics industry. The industry has been organizing, and continues to organize around the promise of Moore’s law for more than 50 years! So I came across graphene as thriving to some extent on the expectations around the end of Moore’s law and because simply everybody was talking about it as the next big thing! Then I thought, this is a great opportunity to investigate hype in real-time

  • Is there something different about the hype for graphene or is this the standard ‘we’ve found a new material and it will change everything’?

I guess with every new technology and new material you find a portion of genuine enthusiasm which might lead to big promises. But that doesn’t necessarily turn into big hype. One thing is that all hype is not the same and you might have technologies that disappeared after the hype such as High Temperature Semiconductors, or technologies that go through a number of hype cycles and disappointment cycles throughout their development (for example, Fuel Cells). Now with graphene what you certainly have is very ‘loud’ hype – the amount of attention it has received in so little time is extraordinary. If that is a characteristic of graphene or a consequence of the current conditions in which the hype has been developed, such as faster ways of communication (social media for example) or different incentives for science and innovation well, this is part of what I am trying to find out.

Quite clearly, the hype in graphene seems to be more ‘reflexive’ than others, that is, people seem to be more conscious about hype now. We have had the experience with carbon nanotubes only recently and scientist, companies and investors are less naïve about what can be expected of the technology, and what needs to be done to move it forward ‘in the right direction’. And they do act in ways that try to soften the slope of the hype-disappointment curve. Having said that, actors [Ed. Note: as in actor-network theory] are also aware of how they can take some advantage of the hype (for funding, investment, or another interest), how to make use of it and hopefully leave safely, before disappointment. In the end, it is rather hard to ask accountability of big promises over the long-term.

  • In the description of your work you mention intentional and implicit modes of building expectations, could explain the difference between the two?

One striking feature of technology development today is that we found more and more activities directed at learning about, assess, and shaping the future, such as forecasts, foresights, Delphi, roadmaps and so on. There are even specialized future actors such as consultancy organisations or foresight experts,  Cientifica among them. And these formalized ways of anticipating  the future are expected to be performative by those who produce them and use them, that is, influence the way the future – and the present- turns out. But this is not a linear story, it’s not like 100% of a roadmap can be turned practice (not even for the ITRS roadmap [Ed. Note: International Technology Roadmap for Semi-conductors] that sustains Moore’s law, some expectations change quite radically between editions of the roadmap). Besides that, there are other forms of building expectations which are embedded in practices around new technologies. Think of the promises made in high profile journals or grant applications; and of expectations incorporated in patents and standards. All these embody particular forms and directions for the future, and exclude others. These are implicit forms of expectation-building, even if not primarily intended as such. These forms are shaped by particular expectations which themselves shape further development. So, in order to understand how these practices, both intentional and implicit, anticipate futures you need to look at the interplay between the various types.

  • Do you see a difference internationally with regard to graphene hype? Is it more prevalent in Europe than in the North America? Is it particularly prevalent in some jurisdiction, e.g. UK?

I think the graphene ‘hype’ has been quite global, but it is moving to different communities, or actors groups, as Tim Harper from Cientifica has mentioned in his recent report about graphene

What is interesting in relation to the different ‘geographical’ responses to graphene is that they exemplify nicely how a big promise (graphene, in this case) is connected to other circulating visions, expectations or concerns. In the case of the UK, the *Nobel prize on Graphene and the following investment was connected to the idea of a perceived crisis of innovation in the country. Thus, the decision to invest in graphene was presented and discussed in reference to global competitiveness, showing a political commitment for science and innovation that was in doubt at that time.

In the European case with its *Graphene flagship, something similar happened. While there is no doubt of the scientific excellence of the flagship project, the reasons why it finally became a winner in the flagship competition might have been related to the attention on graphene. The project itself started quite humbly, and it differed from the other flagship proposals that were much more oriented towards economic or societal challenges. But the attention graphene received after the Nobel Prize, plus the engagement of some large companies, helped to frame the project in terms of its economic profitability.  And. this might have helped to bring attention and make sense of the project in the terms the European Commission was interested in.

In contrast, if you think of the US, the hype has been there (the number of companies engaged in graphene research is only increasing) but it has not had a big echo in policy. One of the reasons might be because this idea of global competition and being left behind is not so present in the US. And in the case of Canada for example, graphene has been taken up by the graphite (mining) community, which is a very local feature.

So answering your questions, the hype has been quite global and fed in a global way (developments in one place resonate in the other) but different geographical areas have reacted in relation to their contingent expectations to what this hype dynamic provided.

  • What do you think of graphene?

I think it’s the new material with more YouTube videos (this one is particularly good in over promising for example)  and the coolest superhero (Mr G from the Flagship). But seriously,  I often get asked that question when I do interviews with actors in the field, since they are curious to learn about the outsider perspective. But to be honest I try to remain as neutral and distant as possible regarding my research object… and not getting caught in the hype!

Thanks so much for a fascinating interview Carla and I very much appreciate the inclusion of Canada in your response to the question about the international response to graphene hype. (Here are three of my postings on graphite and mining in Canada: Canada’s contribution to graphene research: big graphite flakes [Feb. 6, 2012]; A ‘graphite today, graphene tomorrow’ philosophy from Focus Graphite [April 17, 2013[; and Lomiko’s Quatre Milles graphite flakes—pure and ultra pure [April 17, 2013] There are others you can find by searching ‘graphite’ in the blog’s search box.)

* For anyone curious about the Nobel prize and graphene, there’s this Oct.7, 2010 posting. Plus, the Graphene Flagship was one of several projects competing for one of the two 1B Euro research prizes awarded in January 2013 (the win is mentioned in my Jan. 28, 2013 posting).

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Holidays to all!

Nanosilver—US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gets wrist slapped over nanosilver decision in textiles while Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) publishes article about nanosilver

I have two pieces about nanosilver today (Nov. 11 ,2013). The first concerns a Nov. 7, 2013 court ruling in favour of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) stating that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) failed to follow its own rules when it accorded HeiQ Materials (a Swiss textile company) permission to market and sell its nanosilver-based antimicrobial fabric treatment in the US. From the NRDC’s Nov. 7, 2013 press release,

Court Ruling in NRDC’s Favor Should Limit Pesticide Nanosilver in Textiles

In a decision handed down today, the court said the EPA had improperly approved the use of nanosilver by one U.S. textile manufacturer [HeiQ Materials; headquarteed in Switzerland]. The court vacated the approval and sent it back to the agency for reevaluation. The lawsuit has been closely watched as a test case for the growing use of nanotechnology in consumer products.

“The court’s ruling puts us a step closer toward removing nanosilver from textiles,” said Mae Wu, an attorney in NRDC’s Health Program. “EPA shouldn’t have approved nanosilver in the first place. This is just one of a long line of decisions by the agency treating people and our environment as guinea pigs and laboratories for these untested pesticides.”

NRDC sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in early 2012 to limit the use of nanosilver out of a concern for public health. Today the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a key point NRDC raised: that the EPA didn’t follow its own rules for determining whether the pesticide’s use in products would be safe.

Beginning in December 2011, EPA approved the company HeiQ Materials to sell nanosilver used in fabrics for the next four years and required the company to provide data on toxicity for human health and aquatic organisms. In early 2012, NRDC filed a lawsuit against EPA seeking to block nanosilver’s use, contending, among several points, that the agency had ignored its own rules for determining the safety of nanosilver.

The key part of today’s Ninth Circuit ruling addressed EPA’s determination that there is no risk concern for toddlers exposed to nanosilver-treated textiles. The agency’s rules state that if there’s an aggregate exposure to the skin or through ingestion at or below a specific level, there is a risk of health concerns. But the Ninth Circuit found that the EPA had data showing that nanosilver was right at the level that should have triggered a finding of potential risk, but approved the pesticide anyway. That led to the Ninth Circuit vacating EPA’s approval and sending it back down to the agency for reevaluation.

Published in July 2013 (?), Nate Seltenrich’s article, Nanosilver: Weighing the Risks and BenefitsNanosilver: Weighing the Risks and Benefits, for the journal, Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) [published with support from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]) provides some insight into the court case and the issues,

It takes a special sort of case to spur attorneys into a debate over the drooling habits of toddlers. Yet that’s where lawyers from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Swiss chemicals company HeiQ found themselves in January 2013 as they debated in a federal appeals court the extent to which 1-year-olds and 3-year-olds chew, salivate, and swallow.1

At issue in the NRDC’s suit against the EPA, which is still awaiting ruling, was whether the agency was right in granting a conditional registration in December 2011 to a nanosilver-based antimicrobial fabric treatment manufactured by HeiQ.2 The EPA’s risk assessment was based in part on assumptions about exposure of 3-year-olds by sucking or chewing on nanosilver-laced textiles such as clothing, blankets, and pillowcases.

NRDC lawyer Catherine Rahm, however, begged to differ with the agency’s methods. In the January hearing, she argued that the agency record shows infants are more likely than any other subset of children to chew on fabrics that could contain the pesticide, and that if the agency were to recalculate its risk assessment based on the body weight of a 1-year-old, nanosilver concentrations in HeiQ’s product could result in potentially harmful exposures.

It’s an obscure but critical distinction as far as risk assessment goes. And given the implications for HeiQ and other companies looking to follow in its footsteps, the case has landed at the center of a prolonged conflict over the regulation of nanosilver and the growing deployment of this antimicrobial ingredient in a variety of commercial and consumer products.

Yet regardless of which side prevails in the case, the truth about nanosilver is not black and white. Even the loudest voices joining the NRDC’s call for strict regulation of nanosilver concede that context is key.

Seltenrich goes on to recount a little of the history of nanosilver and provide a brief a relatively balanced overview of the research. At the end of the article, he lists 37 reference documents and offers links, should you wish to research further. For anyone interested in HeiQ, here’s the company website.

The second nanosilver news item is from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation( online. In an article by Evelyn Boychuk titled, Silver nanoparticle use spurs U.S. consumer database; Database tracks growing number of consumer goods containing nanomaterials, these nanoparticles are discussed within the context of a resuscitated Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) Consumer Products Inventory (CPI), which was mentioned in my Oct. 28, 2013 posting titled: Rising from the dead: the inventory of nanotechnology-based consumer products. The articles offers an easy introduction to the topic and refers to a database of silver,nanotechnology in commercial products (complementary to the larger CPI).

Responsible innovation at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society’s (Arizona State University) Virtual Institute

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has a funding program called Science Across Virtual Institutes (SAVI) which facilitates global communication for scientists, engineers, and educators. From the SAVI home page,

Science Across Virtual Institutes (SAVI) is a mechanism to foster and strengthen interaction among scientists, engineers and educators around the globe. It is based on the knowledge that excellence in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) research and education exists in many parts of the world, and that scientific advances can be accelerated by scientists and engineers working together across international borders.

According to a Sept. 24, 2013 news item on Nanowerk, the NSF’s SAVI program has funded a new virtual institute at Arizona State University’s (ASU)  Center for Nanotechnology in Societ6y (CNS), Note: Links have been removed,

The National Science Foundation recently announced a grant of nearly $500,000 to establish a new Virtual Institute for Responsible Innovation (VIRI) at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU (CNS-ASU). In a global marketplace that thrives on technological innovation, incorporating ethics, responsibility and sustainability into research and development is a critical priority.

VIRI’s goal is to enable an international community of students and scholars who can help establish a common understanding of responsible innovation in research, training and outreach. By doing so, VIRI aims to contribute to the governance of emerging technologies that are dominated by market uncertainty and difficult questions of how well they reflect societal values.

VIRI founding institutional partners are University of Exeter (UK), Durham University (UK), University of Sussex (UK), Maastricht University (Netherlands), University of Copenhagen (Denmark), Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (Germany), University of Waterloo (Canada), Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (Norway), and State University of Campinas (Brazil).

VIRI founding institutional affiliates are the US National Academy of Engineering’s Center for Engineering, Ethics and Society, IEEE Spectrum Online and Fondazione Giannino Bassetti.

Interesting cast of characters.

The Sept. 23, 2013 ASU news release, which originated the news item, offers some insight into the time required to create this new virtual institute,

Led by ASU faculty members David Guston and Erik Fisher, VIRI will bring a social and ethical lens to research and development practices that do not always focus on the broader implications of their research and products. Guston, director of CNS-ASU, co-director of the Consortium of Science, Policy and Outcomes, and professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies, has been pushing for the establishment of academic units that focus on responsible innovation for years.

“We are thrilled that NSF has chosen to advance responsible innovation through this unique, international collaboration,” Guston said. “It will give ASU the opportunity to help focus the field and ensure that people start thinking about the broader implications of knowledge-based innovation.”

Fisher, assistant professor in the School for Politics and Global Studies, has long been involved in integrating social considerations into science research laboratories through his NSF-funded Socio-Technical Integration Research (STIR) project, an affiliated project of CNS-ASU.

“Using the insights we’ve gained in the labs that have participated in the STIR project, we expect to be able to get VIRI off the ground and make progress very quickly,” Fisher said.

The VIRI appears to be an invite-only affair and it’s early days yet so there’s not much information on the website but the VIRI home page looks promising,

“Responsible innovation” (RI) is an emerging term in science and innovation policy fields across the globe. Its precise definition has been at the center of numerous meetings, research council decisions, and other activities in recent years. But today there is neither a clear, unified vision of what responsible innovation is, what it requires in order to be effective, nor what it can accomplish.
The Virtual Institute for Responsible Innovation (VIRI)

The Virtual Institute for Responsible Innovation (VIRI) was created to accelerate the formation of a community of scholars and practitioners who, despite divides in geography and political culture, will create a common concept of responsible innovation for research, training and outreach – and in doing so contribute to the governance of emerging technologies under conditions dominated by high uncertainty, high stakes, and challenging questions of novelty.
Mission

VIRI’s mission in pursuit of this vision is to develop and disseminate a sophisticated conceptual and operational understanding of RI by facilitating collaborative research, training and outreach activities among a broad partnership of academic and non-academic institutions.
Activities

VIRI will:

  • perform interlinked empirical, reflexive and normative research in a collaborative and comparative mode to explore and develop key concepts in RI;
  • develop curricular material and support educational exchanges of graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and faculty;
  •  create a dynamic online community to represent the breadth of the institute and its multi-lateral activities;
  •  disseminate outputs from across the institute through its own and partner channels and will encourage broad sharing of its research and educational findings.

VIRI will pursue these activities with founding academic partners in the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Brazil and Canada.

The site does offer links to  relevant blogs here.

I was a bit surprised to see Canada’s University of Waterloo rather than the University of Alberta (home of Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology)  as one of the partners.