Monthly Archives: November 2008

Why assess nano risks?

It seems like there’s a pretty obvious answer…because it could be dangerous…but risk is usually discussed along with regulatory oversight and policy which has implications for research funding, consumer acceptance, and more. So back the article on risk management where they cite three traditional risk management principles

(a) acceptable risk (b) cost-benefit analysis, and (c) feasbility (or best avaialble technology).

In acceptable risk, you figure what the risks are and then work to minimize them until you have a technology with an acceptable level of risk. In a cost-benefit analysis, you determine if the benefits and the costs are equal, there are more benefits than costs, or there are more costs than benefits. This is generally speaking, bottom-line driven. In the third principle, feasibility (or best available technology), skips over any analysis of risk (unlike the other two principles), according the article,

This approach, which requres reduction of risks to the lowerst level technoligcally or ecooomically feasible, has the advantage of not requiring information about risks or benefits.

This one has me a little confused as it suggests that the risk has already been assessed somehow but this is no longer brought into the final equation. In other words, if we decide that steam is superior to electricity as an agent for power, we haven’t discussed the risks per se but this is implied when determining the most feasible technology for the job.

There are more principles to come tomorrow including the precautionary principle.

Educating myself about risk management principles and nanotechnology

My usual approach to risk management is focused on possible outcomes and determining the odds of a particular outcome. The area of concern (health, finances, creative endeavours, etc.) is one of many other factors, including my bottom line, which can affect my decision. Extrapolating from the personal to the societal, I think that risk management for nanotechnology requires a whole series of considerations and a range of strategies. The article I mentioned yesterday (Risk Management Principles for Nanotechnology) says basically the same thing at much greater length. More tomorrow.

One quick thing, there’s a well known poet (“Britain’s leading theatre and film poet”), Tony Harrison, visiting at the University of British Columbia’s Green College for the next week or so. He’s giving a series of public talks, performances, and a workshop on reading and performing verse.  More info. here.

UpStage correction

A couple of corrections regarding UpStage from one of the organizers of the event,

thanks very much for featuring UpStage on your blog : ) however, UpStage is the name of the software, not a group of artists. there are many different artists (some individual, some in groups) who are using UpStage as a platform for their work. also, the event in december isn’t a performance, but a walk-through – an open session for anyone who is interested to find out more about how UpStage works & can be used to create live collaborative performances via the web.

helen : )

UpStage Dec. 2008

UpStage is the name for a group of artists in New Zealand who create performances online using an open source application. They will be hosting another performance in early December. For some parts of the world the event starts on Dec. 3, 2008 while for other parts it’s Dec. 4, 2008.  They do offer a link to site that will give you the correct time in your particular part of the world. First, here’s a little information about the work from their About page,

UpStage is a web-based venue for online performance; it is an open source server application that has been in development since 2003. The second version of the software was developed with funding from the Community Partnership Fund of the New Zealand government’s Digital Strategy and released in June 2007.

“It is a fabulous and strange conjunction of dramatic and artistic devices. I was transfixed by the complex new possibilities opened up by the tool.” Ruth Catlow

Online audiences anywhere in the world participate in live performance events by going to a web page, without having to download and install any additional software.

You can get more about the group and their work here and you can find out about the event and sign up for it here.

I’ve been doing some thinking about risk especially the risks associated with implementing nanotechnology and mostly I’ve found material about environment, health, and safety risks but not much about any social issues. I did find a 2007 call for papers on a projected book titled, ‘Nanotechnology, Social Implications, and the Environment’. Sadly I can’t find the book listed as published or as a forthcoming book on the publisher’s (Rowman & Littlefield)  web site. As for the usual risk management principles cited for health and safety and environmental issues, I found an article which discusses a couple of new models. I will be writing this material up later this week. If you’re dying to read the article yourself, it’s called “Risk Management Principles for Nanotechnology” by Gary E. Marchant, Douglas J. Sylvester, and Kenneth W. Abbott in Nanoethics (2008) 2:43-60.

Nano as per story, communication, and 4-D microscopy

It’s been a very slow week but I finally found a few good things. First, a 4-D microscope has been developed by researchers at CalTech. The breakthrough was compared to Eadweard Muybridge’s breakthrough photographic work (he was the first to photograph proof that all four of a horse’s hooves left the ground while galloping) in the 19th Century. Ahmed Zewail, 1999 winner of Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) and his colleagues have published their findings in the November 21, 2008 issue of Science. With this equipment, scientists will now be able to observe the behaviour of atoms and molecules over space and time. There’s a more detailed article here.

In March 2009, there’s going to be an international advanced communication course regarding nanotechnology at Oxford University. It’s called ‘Public Communication and Applied Ethics of Nanotechnology’ but it seems more like a standard course on how a nonprofessional communicator should get their message out to the public, government agencies, and other interested parties. Oddly, they haven’t listed anyone’s credentials and most of this presenters seem to be academics. With session titles like “How do the media work,” Reviewing participants’ prepared press releases,” etc., I’d expect a few less academics to be presenting and more practitioners. If you’re interested, there’s a description of the event here and a brochure here.

The National Academy of Sciences in the US has a new initiative where they will ‘matchmake’ between filmmakers, scriptwriters, and other creative types with scientists in a bid for scientific accuracy in products from the entertainment industry. They had a symposium in Los Angeles this last Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008. I find the idea interesting although I had an experience last year which points to at least one pitfall.

Before I get to the pitfall, I need to lead up to it. During last year’s national Science and Technology Week (Canada), Genome BC had an event where they invited the producers and actors from a tv programme called ‘Regenesis’ to a public dialogue. We sat at tables of about 8 – 10 people and listened to what they had to say about the science represented in the show. The lead played a geneticist who solved the week’s story crisis with his understanding of genetics. We watched a clip from the show and then proceeded to discuss it. Here’s my best description of the clip (memory may not be exact),

The lead researcher geneticist meets an adolescent male who’s in trouble. The geneticists run a DNA profile of this troubled adolescent and presents information in a courtroom science. We’re told that there are certain genetic markers that can indicate if someone is predisposed to addiction (and I think he also included violence). Apparently the average person will show 8 out of 40 (I think) potential markers, the troubled adolescent had 32 of the markers which was dramatically revealed to the court in an image of his DNA test results.

As we all should be, everyone at the table was concerned about the ethics but, surprisingly, no one questioned the science.  I don’t mean that the science was necessarily incorrect just that nothing is ever that cut and dried. I did pipe up and luckily there was a geneticist beside me who concurred although most of the people didn’t seem that convinced.

From a storytelling perspective, the problem is that the writer needs to heighten the tension for the demands of the story and most scientific results should be qualified in a nuanced fashion which does lend itself to dramatic tension. So, I’m glad they’re working towards more scientific authenticity but there is a limit to what they can do and still have an interesting story to tell.

Nano in outer space, nano opportunties in Japan, and Bruce–The Musical

I don’t know how I missed it at the time but, there’s a very interesting article on Casimir forces and a DARPA (a US Department of Defense research agency) request for research proposals.  There’s a brief overview of Casimir forces when they were first postulated along with a brief description of what they are (with links to more details) along with a discussion as to possible applications which are of interest to DARPA. The Nanowerk article from Sept. 19, 2008 is here.

Nanotech BC sent this notice: you have until Nov. 19, 2008 to apply for a business matching session with Japanese companies at the world’s largest nanotechnology event, Nanotechnology 2009 (Feb. 18 – 20, 2009). For applications and more details, go here.

Bruce–The Musical is finishing its run this weekend.  If you’re a Vancouverite (BC not WA state), then go. It’s a piece of our own history (mostly true) and it’s hardly ever represented on local stages. The play’s about an activist, Bruce Eriksen who helped to define one of the most forgotten areas of the city as a neighbourhood. Referred to locally as ‘the skids’ or or ‘skid row’, it’s now known as the downtown eastside. (aside: Unfortunately, things have gone downhill since Eriksen’s day although I shudder to think what would have happened to the area without Eriksen’s intervention. ) Still the play commemorates something important in the city and it’s done in a thoroughly engaging fashion.

The person I went with and whose politics are right of Bruce Eriksen’s turned to me at one point and whispered, “I did that too and so did my brother.” I can’t remember if it was a song or dialogue but it revealed that Eriksen had worked on the boats, in the mines, and in the construction industry. The characters on stage are people you’ve seen or met and the places they’re talking about are a few blocks away. (BTW, I’ve been to four or five plays with this friend and it’s the first time I’ve seen him get excited about one. Oh, one other thing. He studied acting and playwriting in New York.)

There’s a lot of heart in this show. It’s not a perfect play as one local critic pointed out but I saw a show last year at the Stanley Theatre that had some of the same problems and that sucker had won a Pulitzer Prize.  Bruce-The Musical is at least as that one. The play is being produced at the Russian Hall, 600 Campbell Ave.; it’s one of those funny little residential pockets in that area and it is safe. If you’re interested, go here for tickets. The run ends on Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008.

Full disclosure: I am taking an acting class form the play’s director, Jay Hamburger.

ICON database and Michael Crichton, RIP

The International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON) has announced a new tool for researchers. ICON has a nano-environment, health, and safety search function that will allow researchers to analyze ICON’s database of citations. The tool, which looks nifty, is located here.  For more details about tool capabilities and about the possibilities opened up to researchers, there’s the Nanowerk article.

I saw this reprint of an interview with Michael Crichton, a writer who died last week, discussing his then-new novel Prey. It’s illuminating to discover just what he thought of nanotechnology (one of the emerging technologies dramatised in Prey) and roles of the sciences, technology, and the humanities in society. The interview is here.

UK Royal Commission concludes that nano should be regulated and synthetic bio event reminder

According to the online BBC News, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has suggested that reporting the use of nanomaterials in industrial applications become mandatory and that establishing tests for danger and regulatory insight be undertaken cooperatively and internationally. The Commission advised against a blanket moratorium or ban on the development of nanomaterials because there are so many potential benefits. The members of the commission focused their efforts on how nanomaterials function rather than their size or dimension. There’s more from the article here.

On a personal basis, this is rather timely as I’m trying to write up a PhD research proposal and I’ve remarked on this obsession with ‘nano numbers’ as it were. There’s a group of people at Cornell University who are trying to find ways to convey size as a means of educating the public about nanotechnology. I don’t think that’s a good idea after having tried that strategy a few times in conference presentations and watching my audiences’ eyes glaze over. Most of us don’t have any sense of how big a germ is but we can imagine it and I think that’s what will happen with nanomaterials — we will be able to imagine them. Or for another example, what about electricity? We don’t see it but we take it for granted and we have a pretty good sense that certain activities could kill or severely harm us, i. e. “Don’t touch a live wire” or “Don’t stick a knife into your toaster when it’s plugged in and switched on.”

The Synthetic Bio: Coming Up Fast! event organized by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnolgies is taking place on Nov. 14, 2008. (The first notice for this event was in my Oct. 28, 2008 posting.) The webcast has been delayed to 1:45 pm ET or, as I think of it, 10:45 am PT.  If you’re planning to attend the live event, check out the details here.

A little bit more on nano and cosmetics

Andrew Maynard (Chief Science Adviser to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies) has written up his impressions (on the 2020 Science blog) of the report that Which? has published on nanotechnology in cosmetics. The report is called, Small Wonder? Nanotechnology and Cosmetics. (It’s not been posted on Which?’s website yet.) You can read Maynard’s comments here.

Obama nano and nano risks in cosmetics

Take a look at the image of US president-elect Barack Obama that’s been made out of carbon nanotubes. It’s called Nanobama and it’s here.

Today BBC News had an article about warnings from a consumer safety watchdog group, Which? (formerly known as the Consumers’ Association). They wrote to 67 cosmetics companies asking them about their use of nanotechnology. 17 companies responded and eight of them provided specific information about how they use nanotechnology in their products. The eight companies included: Avon, L’Oreal, The Body Shop, Nivea, Unilever, and others. After examining the information, Which? has advised that nanocosmetic products should have an independent safety assessment.

There has been an attempt at voluntary reporting of engineered nanomaterials. It was instituted by the UK government in the fall of 2006. To date, they’ve had 12 responses and the voluntary programme is under review. I get the feeling that government regulation may be a reality in the not too distant future. Anyway, it’s a good introductory article about cosmetics, the precautionary principle, and nanotechnology and it’s located here.

In fact, the article reminded me of an event with L’Oreal that the Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) had to postpone a few months ago. It was called, Small is Beautiful–A European View of Nanotech Cosmetics and Safety and it was to feature a speaker from L’Oreal and PEN’s science advisor, Andrew Maynard. I hope they find a way to reschedule it soon.