Monthly Archives: January 2009

Science funding cuts in the Canadian 2009 budget

Lost in all the excitement over Genome Canada’s disappearance from the budget is the drop in funding allocations for all three national research councils, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), National Research Council (NRC), and I think they’re including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) as the third one even though the name isn’t quite right. You can read up on the situation here and notice how the other three institutions are hardly mentioned.

Interestingly there was a recent article (Sat., Jan. 24, 2009) in the Globe and Mail about health research in Canada and how a great many US researchers flocked up because their funding was being limited and cut off in the US. Two researchers interviewed for the article mentioned that they were seeing similar signs of a freeze or even loss of funds, as they’d experienced in the US, on the horizon here as they were having problems with funding requests. (As I recall, the focus was on stem cell research but it might have been something else too.)

I am concerned in a general sense although I’m not a big fan of all this genomic mapping. How does mapping the genome of any organism help? As far as I can tell, all they’ve done is identify characteristics but they don’t understand how any of it works together. (I’m going to see if I can find a quote from Denise Caruso about genes and mapping them. As I recall, it hasn’t really amounted to anything much.)

While I disagree with some of the emphasis, I’m still concerned that all the science funding is being pulled back at this time. The whole thing is in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s interest in revitalizing and strengthening research in the US by pumping additional funds.

Silver nanoparticles, local business, and some toxicity findings

In December 2008 I saw an article in The Province’s business pages about a local apparel (sportswear) company, Firstar, which produces shirts that don’t smell or stain due to a special polyester fabric that is “moisture- and heart-repelling and bacteria-destroying.” This time they’ve gotten a write up in Business Vancouver

When I first wrote about the company (Dec.22.08), I noted that there was a mention of silver ions which gave the fabric its anti-bacterial properties. I noted that the silver ions were likely silver nanoparticles. I did email a question to the company about this. There was a reply but no information about the silver nanoparticles and possible health issues.

It’s interesting to note that the Business in Vancouver article makes no reference to silver ions and the fabric is described as a microfibre material. Of course, the focus is mostly on the business side of it, which is natural given the paper’s readership/market.

Seeing the article reminded me of them and I went looking for information about silver nanoparticles and some of the concerns regarding its use. I found this article by Michael Berger. It seems that silver nanoparticles can be toxic and the reason for being concerned is that the particles are appearing in the water supply. The sport shirt that hardly ever has to be washed eventually  does have to be washed. And because silver nanoparticles can be washed away, they end up in the water supply.

There are a lot of companies (not just Firstar) using nanoparticles in their products and what that means nobody really knows. Personally, I’d be a little careful about using anything with silver nanoparticles in it.

Canadian quantum dot at room temperature

The researchers at the University of Alberta and the National Institute of Nanotechnology have cracked a problem. Quantum dots can be used to ‘herd’ or control electrons but up until now the dots could only be used effectively at ultra low temperatures consequently practical applications have lagged.

A research team headed by Robert A. Wolkow has created a single atom quantum dot that be used at room temperature. The smallest dot is one silicon atom and measures less than 1 nanometre in diameter. Generally quantum dots, sometimes called artificial atoms, have ranged from 2 – 10 nanometres in diameter.

The news release doesn’t go into much detail other than to note “[The] property enables numerous revolutionary schemes for electronic devices.”  For the news release go here and if you’re interested in both the press release and a video animation of a single quantum dot, go here.

Social research and nano plus 2 million jobs

There’s a new report on social and ethical issues, as they pertain to nanotechnology, that’s just been issued by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. It was written by Ronald Sandler, a philosophy professor at Northeastern University. You can find the report here and you can find articles about it here and here. The articles have a very hopeful tone (due to some recent action in the US Congress) suggesting that there will be money for social research programs. After reading a couple of articles about science and its new found status within the new Obama administration, I’m guessing the euphoria is spreading from the science community to the social science community.

I imagine this news will add even more fuel to the prospective science and social science renaissance. The US National Science Foundation has estimated that the US will need 2 million workers who are nano-tech savvy by 2014. A non-profit group in the US has developed a program to help with this upcoming shortage of workers. The program is being instituted at the University of California at San Diego. I don’t entirely understand how a non-profit group can develop curriculum for a university (as far as I know that can’t be done in Canada). Here are links to two articles about it, one here and one here.

Upstream engagement and nano plus some quick bits

Upstream engagement is a term used to describe a type of public engagement/consultation/understanding of science exercise. The idea is that if you inform people (the public mostly) about discoveries and innovations after the fact that they are more likely to reject them. So using the metaphor of a river, it’s easier to affect the flow of the river (public opinion) upstream than it is downstream where it has gotten bigger and more powerful.

The example that’s often used to illustrate the point is biotechnology and, as the thinking goes, the public engagement/consultation/understanding projects were started too late (too far downstream) to have an effect on the panic that occurred. To restate, if people had been better informed and more science literate they would not have panicked as they did.

Since I’ve just written a number of postings explaining my thinking about the use of public engagement/consultation/understanding projects as prophylactic treatments for public panics, I’ll move on to another goal for these projects: information gathering from the public with an intent to collaborate. But I’m doing that in a posting later this week.

It looks like Alberta is about to get $3.3M from the Canadian federal government to look into environmental issues posed by nanotechnology. They are planning to have a panel headquartered in Alberta at the National Institute of Nanotechnology in Edmonton. 13 scientists, five universities, three government departments,  and two national institutes of research will be cooperating on this panel. (I’m not sure what they mean by cooperation as it’s not explained but you can take a look at the article here.) It’s not a done deal yet.

If your dream is to have your nanotechnology writings appear in a nanotechnology encyclopedia, then SAGE Publications has a deal for you. They are looking for authors. For more detail, go to this article here or you can contact Susan Moskowitz, Managing Editor, Author Recruitment, Golson Books Ltd., her email is [email protected]

‘Magic nano’ and whistling in the dark

So a ‘frankenfoods’ situation is difficult to manufacture in the same way that it’s difficult to manufacture any fad or craze or panic. A case in point is ‘magic nano’, a situation I first heard about in a December 2007 webcast from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. A reporter who works with NPR, Nell Greenfieldboyce, asked the audience if they’d heard of it. When blank incomprehension met her question she went on to explain that  a cleaning product, marketed and sold in Germany, called ‘magic nano’ had occasioned concern a few years back in the nanotech community. Someone had gotten sick after using the product and, initially, there was a lot of news coverage in Europe along with some interest elsewhere. In the end, it all came to naught. It seems (Greenfieldboyce had been unable to confirm this definitively) that there was no nanotechnology component to the product and that the ‘nano’ was strictly for marketing purposes. For most people the story is dead; no one has heard of ‘magic nano’. Except for the people who keep mentioning the story in workshops and other events.

I heard the ‘magic nano’ story again in July 2008 at a local nano breakfast event that featured, Dr. Kristen Kulinowski, from ICON (International Council on Nanotechnology) and Rice University. she was talking about health and safety and asked us if we’d heard of ‘magic nano’. Again, there was the blank incomprehension and so she told the story. She then implied that the ‘magic nano’ story’s lack of impact proves that there won’t be any nanotechnology panics on the order of what happened with biotechnology, i.e. ‘frankenfoods’. That is possible but the failure of the ‘magic nano’ story is not evidence to support the conclusion. In other words, it’s whistling in the dark.

There can be many, many failures before something catches the public’s attention and, if it turns to panic, no amount of thoughtful commentary before or after  will help. And, sometimes the public is right and the brakes do need to be applied.

I do think public engagement/consultation/understanding of science projects and exercises are useful but they aren’t prophylactic treatments.

Public understanding of science projects as prophylactic treatments

As I stated (in different words) yesterday, prophylaxis is one of the unspoken goals for a lot of these public consultation/engagement/understanding science projects. The problem is that you have to figure out how a group is going to react so you can make predictions.  The recent write up in Nature Nanotechnology (December 2008 online edition) featuring work from Dan M. Kahan, et al from the Cognition Project at Yale has a very interesting way of analyzing how people arrive at their opinions described in my posting here. These people suggest/predict that learning more about a science or a technology is not going to be helpful since opinions get fixed at an early stage and further intellectual input does not (according to their study) change things.

Presumably people would have behaved similarly (i.e. quickly establishing opinion after a minimum of input) on the introduction of electricity. There are a surprising number of similarities between the technology introductions of then (19th century) and now. If you want to look at some of the text from that period complete with dire predictions about messing with God’s work, there’s an excellent book  written by Carolyn Marvin called ‘When Old Technologies were New’.

We are able to predict some things about people individually and in groups but we don’t have a very good record. If we could do it well, every movie would be a financial success, every song would be a hit, and no scientists would ever have the projects halted due to public outcry.  More tomorrow.