Monthly Archives: January 2010

Self-cleaning windows almost here?; SAFENANO consortium and two new contracts; high school students in Albany, NY compete with nano projects; the state of science journalism in the UK

According to a news item on Nanowerk, the Nanophase Technologies Corporation introduced a new nanotechnology-enabled window cleaning product at the International Window Cleaning Association Convention in Reno (Jan. 27 – 30, 2010). From the news item,

NanoUltra™ Super Hydrophilic Window Technology keeps windows cleaner longer than traditional window washing by providing an invisible protection to the surface of glass. The NanoUltra™ products impart a protection to the glass surface that is hydrophilic, allowing water to create a sheeting action that washes away dirt and grime. These revolutionary products also accelerate drying time, resulting in virtually spot and streak free windows.
This high-performance product works using a two-step application method. First, NanoUltra™ Super Hydrophilic Window Pretreatment, a nano cerium oxide based product, is applied to provide both a chemical and mechanical polishing mechanism that restores glass to ‘like new’ condition. Then the NanoUltra™ Super Hydrophilic Treatment product is applied to maintain the super hydrophilic surface property and give windows the ultimate shine.
The results can provide significant benefits to building owners and managers, professional window cleaners and window restoration specialists. In addition to potentially reducing liability and cleaning costs for the building owners, the NanoUltra™ technology offers up-sell and new business development opportunities for those servicing these patrons.

There’s more about the windows on Nanowerk here.

I’m happy to hear that I’m a step closer to self-cleaning windows although I wasn’t thinking of getting two new cleaning products. I want windows that are perpetually self-cleaning and not reliant on coatings that I have to reapply and which will likely leave streaks. This my problem with cleaning windows, i.e., streaks. Plus, I’m concerned about the birds. Won’t birds hurt themselves flying into shiny (“… ultimate shine …” ), clear windows?

SAFENANO, mentioned earlier this week (Jan. 27, 2010) has just announced two contracts which will provide information for the regulation of nanomaterials. From the news item on Nanowerk,

A consortium led by SAFENANO from the Institute of Occupational Medicine has been awarded two contracts by the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection of the European Commission’s Directorate General Joint Research Centre (JRC) concerning the development of specific advice on the assessment of nanomaterials under REACH. The first project, REACH-NanoInfo (also known as RIP-oN2), addresses the REACH information requirements on intrinsic properties of nanomaterials. The second project, REACH-NanoHazEx (RIP-oN3), addresses undertaking exposure assessments and conducting hazard and risk characterisation for nanomaterials within the REACH context.

If you want more information about the projects, go here.

I’ve been lazily following the nanotechnology scene in NY state since 2008 when IBM awarded $1.5B to the state for nanotechnology. From the announcement on Nanowerk,

The investment will go toward three separate and complementary components of a comprehensive project, supporting the nanotechnology chip computer activities of IBM: the expansion of IBM’s operations at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the University at Albany (Albany NanoTech), the creation of a new, advanced semiconductor packaging research and development center at a to be determined in Upstate New York, and the upgrading of IBM’s East Fishkill facility in Dutchess County.

Since then, I’ve noticed, with much interest, the University of Albany’s nanotechnology outreach efforts (latest posting about it here).  It seems they have also reached into high schools. According to the news item on Nanowerk,

A trio of high school seniors conducting hands-on nanotechnology research through internships at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (“CNSE”) of the University at Albany have been selected as semifinalists in the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search (“Intel STS”), the nation’s most prestigious pre-college science competition. The three are among just 300 students chosen nationwide to compete for $1.25 million in awards, with 40 finalists scheduled to be announced on January 27.

I did track down the Jan.27.10 announcement of the 40 finalists but have not found a list of names. From the announcement,

New York again has the highest number [emphasis mine] of young innovators in this competition (11 this year). Following New York is California with eight finalists; Texas with three; Illinois, New Jersey and Oregon with two each; and Alabama, Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Virginia and Wisconsin with one finalist each.

Unfortunately I don’t have a neat segue for my next bit which is about science journalism in the UK. According to the news item on physorg.com,

The study ‘Mapping the Field: Specialist science news journalism in the UK national media’ was led by Dr Andy Williams of the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. It was based on a survey of UK science, health, and environment news journalists, and 52 in-depth interviews with specialist reporters and senior editors in the national news media.

According to the research there has been an increase in the number of specialist science journalists in the UK national news media and there is a growing appetite for science news within newsrooms.

Also noted are the problems that all journalists are currently facing as newspapers and magazines struggle for survival.

If you want to read more about the study, you can also go here, where more information such as this is featured,

Whilst the extent of the influence of public relations varies widely between different news outlets, there is a general sense that PR has become an increasingly important and unavoidable presence over the last decade. A significant minority, 23%, believe science specialists rely on PR too much, and 25% of respondents said they now use more PR than previously. Many interviewees complain that a lot of their time is spent trying to convince news desks not to run poor-quality “bad science” stories they have seen on the news wires and/or in eye-catching press releases.

The struggle between journalists and PR practitioners is longstanding and worth discussing in a posting next week. Meanwhile, happy weekend.

New US nanotechnology legislation for health and safety proposed; SAFENANO reviews 2009

After finding this announcement on Azonano (or you can find it on Senator Pryor’s site here),

U.S. Senators Mark Pryor (D-AR) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) today introduced legislation to address potential health and safety risks about products that contain nanotechnology materials.

The Nanotechnology Safety Act of 2010 would establish a program within the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to assess the health and safety implications of nanotechnology in everyday products and develop best practices for companies who employ nanotechnology. The legislation authorizes $25 million each year from 2011 through 2015.

I went looking for a comment or news release about it on the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies website and was surprised to find nothing. In fact, I couldn’t find any commentary anwyhere in my very brief search this morning.

Meanwhile, SAFENANO (an initiative of the UK’s Institute of Occupational Medicine) has produced a review of  nanotechnology environment, health, and safety developments for 2009. They cover both developments in Europe and elsewhere. From the review,

In January, the International Standards Organisation ISO published a technical report ISO/TR 12885:2008 ” Health and safety practices in occupational settings relevant to nanotechnologies “. The report provides a general background the nanoparticle risk issues and describes in some detail current practices for risk assessment, exposure measurement and control which are appropriate for use with engineered nanoparticles. This report takes an encyclopaedic view but stops short of recommending which practices are appropriate for which materials under which circumstances, leading to disappointment for some users. This report is commercially available from ISO.
This was closely followed by a report from Canada published by Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST), in collaboration with CSST and  NanoQuébec The document ” Best Practices Guide to Synthetic Nanoparticle Risk Management, Report R599 “, covered much of the same ground as the ISO document but in less detail. This document also introduced the idea of using a “control banding” approach based on that described by Paik and recommends that this approach is used where there is insufficient information for a quantitative risk assessment.

It is a very interesting and useful review which you can read here.

Monkey writes baseball story; Feynman symposium at USC; US government releases nanotechnology data sets; World Economic Forum (at Davos) interested in science

To my horror, researchers at Northwestern University in the US have developed software (Stats Monkey) that will let you automatically generate a story about a baseball game by pressing a button. More specifically, the data from the game is input to a database which when activated can generate content based on the game’s statistics.

I knew this would happen when I interviewed some expert at Xerox about 4 or 5 years ago. He was happily burbling on about tagging words and being able to call information up into a database and generating text automatically. I noted that as a writer I found the concept disturbing. He claimed that it would never be used for standard writing but just for things which are repetitive. I guess he was thinking it could be used for instructions and such or perhaps he was just trying to placate me. Back to stats monkey: I find it interesting that the researchers don’t display any examples of the ‘writing’. If you are interested, you can check out the project here.

The discussion about the nanotechnology narrative continues. At the University of Southern California, they will be holding a 50th anniversary symposium about the publication (in 1960)  of Feynman’s 1959 talk, There’s plenty of room at the bottom, and its impact on nanotechnology. You can read more about the event here or you can see the programme for the symposium here.

Bravo to the US government as they are releasing information to the public in a bid for transparency. Dave Bruggeman at Pasco Phronesis notes that the major science agencies had not released data sets at the time of his posting. Still, the Office of Science and Technology Policy did make data available including data about the National Nanotechnology Initiative,

The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) coordinates Federal nanotechnology research and development among 25 Federal agencies. The data presented here represent NNI investments by agency and program component area (PCA) from the Initiative’s founding in FY 2001 through FY 2010 (requested). These data have been available as part of the NNI’s annual supplements to the President’s Budget. But compared to earlier releases, the data as presented here are more accessible and readily available for analysis by users wishing to assess trends and examine investment allocations over the 10-year history of the NNI. The cumulative NNI investment of nearly $12 billion is advancing our understanding of the unique phenomena and processes that occur at the nanoscale and is helping leverage that knowledge to speed innovation in high-impact opportunity areas such as energy, security, and medicine.

You can get the data set here in either XLS or PDF formats.

It would be very difficult to get this type of information in Canada as we have no central hub for nanotechnology research funding. We do have the National Institute of Nanotechnology which is a National Research Council agency jointly funded by the province of Alberta and the federal government. Not all nanotechnology research is done under their auspices. There’s more than one government agency which funds nanotechnology research and there is no reporting mechanism that would allow us to easily find out how much funding or where it’s going.

The 2010 edition of the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos takes place January 27 – 31. It’s interesting to note that a meeting devoted to economic issues has sessions on science, social media, the arts, etc. which suggests a much broader view of economics than I’m usually exposed to. However, the session on ‘Entrepreneurial Science’ does ring a familiar note. From the session description,

According to the US National Academy of Sciences, only 0.1% of all funded basic science research results in a commercial venture.

How can the commercial viability of scientific research be improved?

I’m not sure how they derived the figure of 0.1%. Was the data international? Were they talking about government-funded research? Over what period of time? (It’s not uncommon for research to lie fallow for decades before conditions shift sufficiently to allow commercialization.) How do you determine the path from research to commercialization? e.g. Perhaps the work that resulted in a commercial application was based on 10 other studies that did not.

Participatory science; wearable batteries; radio interview with Andrew Maynard; shadow science ministers in Canada’s political parties

Ordinary people (nonscientists like me) have a long tradition of participating in scientific research in areas such as astronomy and ornithology (bird watching). A local example is the eagle count which takes place at Brackendale every year. (Aside: The 2010 count has already taken place but it’s still possible to attend festival events which are now part of the Brackendale eagle count experience.)

Someone whose science interests may be more esoteric can have trouble finding opportunities to pursue their interests. Thanks to the Science Cheerleader there is a new online resource to help you find a project. From the Science Cheerleader blog,

Hot diggity-DOG! After years in the making, my partner, Michael Gold, and I–with generous support from Science House–have officially unveiled the beta version (that means this is still a work-in-progress) of ScienceForCitizens.net . Science journalist, Carl Zimmer, who frequently writes for Discover and Time Magazine, said “It’s like Amazon.com for all sorts of possibilities for doing cool citizen science”. We’ll take that

And thanks to the Pasco Phronesis blog for the info. about the Science Cheerleader.

For an abrupt change of pace: Yes, you could be wearing your batteries at some point in the future. Scientists at Stanford University (CA) have found a way to easily and inexpensively turn cotton or polyester fibres into batteries or, as they call it, wearable energy textiles or e-textiles. From the news item on BBC News,

“Wearable electronics represent a developing new class of materials… which allow for many applications and designs previously impossible with traditional electronics technologies,” the authors [of the study published in ACS Nano Letters] wrote.

A number of research efforts in recent years have shown the possibility of electronics that can be built on flexible and even transparent surfaces – leading to the often-touted “roll-up display”.

However, the integration of electronics into textiles has presented different challenges, in particular developing approaches that work with ordinary fabrics.

Now, Yi Cui and his team at Stanford University in the US has shown that their “ink” made of carbon nanotubes – cylinders of carbon just billionths of a metre across – can serve as a dye that can simply and cheaply turn a t-shirt into an “e-shirt”.

I’ve taken a look at the research paper which, as these things go, is pretty readable. Bravo to the American Chemical Society (ACS) for not placing the material behind a paywall. The article, Stretchable, Porous and Conductive Energy Textiles,  published in the ACS journal Nano Letters is here.

I had the pleasure of listening to a radio interview on Whyy Radio conducted by Marty Moss-Coane where she interviewed Dr. Andrew Maynard, Chief Science Advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnolgies. The interview (approximately 50 mins.)  titled, The Science and Safety of Nanotechnology, is available for listening here. Moss-Coane was well-prepared, asked good questions, and had listeners call in with their own questions. Dr. Andrew Maynard was, as always, very likable and interesting.

After my recent posting on science policy in Canada and the four major political parties, I thought I’d check out the various shadow science ministers or critics. Here’s what I found,

Gary Goodyear, Conservative, Minister of State (Science and Technology)

Jim Maloway, NDP, Science and Technology [portfolio]

Frances Coates, Green Party, shadow minister Science and Technology

Marc Garneau, Liberal Party, Industry, Science and Technology critic

I have looked at all their websites and Garneau seems the most interested in science and technology issues. Given that he’s a former astronaut and is an engineer, one might expect that he would have a major interest in the subject. He’s written a paper on the subject (thanks to the folks at The Black Hole for finding it). If you go here and either read or scroll to the bottom, you will find a link to his paper. He also has a poll on his website, What is the importance of science and technology to create the jobs for tomorrow? You can go here to answer the question. As for the others, Goodyear lists a series of announcements in news releases as accomplishments which makes identifying his actual accomplishments difficult. Jim Maloway does not mention science on his website and Frances Coates posted a few times on her blog in 2008 but made no mention of science.

Site remediation and nano materials; perspectives on risk assessment; Leonardo’s call for nano and art; a new nano art/science book

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) is holding an event on site remediation on Feb. 4, 2010 (12:30 pm to 1:30 pm EST). From the news release,

A new review article appearing in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) co-authored by Dr. Todd Kuiken, Research Associate for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN), Dr. Barbara Karn, Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Marti Otto, Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency focuses on the use of nanomaterials for environmental cleanup. It provides an overview of current practices; research findings; societal issues; potential environment, health, and safety implications; and possible future directions for nanoremediation. The authors conclude that the technology could be an effective and economically viable alternative for some current site cleanup practices, but potential risks remain poorly understood.

PEN’s Contaminated Site Remediation: Are Nanomaterials the Answer? features the EHN article’s authors  Kulken, Karn, and Otto on a panel with David Rejeski, PEN’s executive director moderating. PEN also has a map detailing almost 60 sites (mostly in the US, 2  in Canada, 4 in Europe, and 1 in Taiwan) where nanomaterials are being used for remediation.  More from the news release,

According to Dr. Kuiken, “Despite the potentially high performance and low cost of nanoremediation, more research is needed to understand and prevent any potential adverse environmental impacts, particularly studies on full-scale ecosystem-wide impacts. To date, little research has been done.”

In its 2004 report Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties, the British Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering recommended that the use of free manufactured nanoparticles be prohibited for environmental applications such as remediation until further research on potential risks and benefits had been conducted. The European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) called for further risk research in 2005 while acknowledging environmental remediation technology as one of nanotechnology’s potential benefits.

If you wish to attend in person (i.e. you are in Washington, DC), you are asked to RSVP here (they provide a light lunch starting at 12 pm) or you can watch the webcast (no RSVP necessary and I will put up a link to the webcast closer to the date).

On the topic of risk, Michael Berger has written an in depth piece about a recently published article, Redefining research risk priorities for nanomaterials, in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research. From Berger’s piece,

While research in quantitative risk characterization of nanomaterials is crucially important, and no one advocates abandoning this approach, scientists and policy makers must face the reality that many of these knowledge gaps cannot be expected to be closed for many years to come – and decision making will need to continue under conditions of uncertainty. At the same time, current chemical-based research efforts are mainly directed at establishing toxicological and ecotoxicological and exposure data for nanomaterials, with comparatively little research undertaken on the tools or approaches that may facilitate near-term decisions.

In other words, there’s a big lag between developing new products using nanomaterials and the research needed to determine the health and environmental risks associated both with the production and use of these new materials. The precautionary principle suggests that we not produce or adopt these products until we are certain about risks and how to ameliorate and/or eliminate them. That’s an impossible position as we can never anticipate with any certainty what will happen when something is released to the general public or into the environment at large.  From Berger’s piece,

In their article, [Khara Deanna] Grieger [PhD student at Technical University of Denmark (DTU)], Anders Baun, who heads DTU’s Department of Environmental Engineering, and Richard Owens from the Policy Studies Institute in the UK, argue that there has not yet been a significant amount of attention dedicated to the field of timely and informed decision making for near term decisions. “We see this as the central issue for the responsible emergence of nanotechnologies” says Grieger.

Getting back to site remediation using nanomaterials, since it’s already in use as per the map and the authors state that there hasn’t been enough research into risks, do we pull back and adopt the precautionary principle or do we proceed as intelligently as possible in an area where uncertainty rules? That’s a question I will continue to explore as I get my hands on more information.

On a completely different nano front, the Leonardo magazine has issued a call for papers on nano and art,

2011 is the International Year of Chemistry! To celebrate Leonardo is seeking to publish papers and artworks on the intersections of chemistry,
nanotechnology and art for our on-going special section on nanotechnology and the arts. Since its inception nanotech/science has been intimately connected to chemistry; fullerenes, nanoputians, molecular machines, nano-inorganics and self-assembling molecular systems all spring from the minds and labs of chemists, biochemists and chemical engineers. If you’re a nano-oriented chemist who is serious about art, an artist working on the molecular level, or a chemical educator exploring the mysteries of nano through the arts we are especially seeking submissions from you.

You can send proposals, queries, and/or manuscripts to the Leonardo editorial office: [email protected] You can read more about the call for papers here at Leblogducorps or you can go here to the Leonardo online journal.

Meanwhile, Andrew Maynard at 2020 Science is posting about a new book which integrates art work in an attempt to explain nanotechnology without ever mentioning it. From Andrew’s posting,

How do you write a book about something few people have heard off, and less seem interested in?  The answer, it seems, is to write about something else.

Felice Frankel and George Whitesides have clearly taken this lesson to heart. Judged by the cover alone, their new book “No Small Matter:  Science at the Nanoscale” is all about science in the Twilight zone of the nanoscale

– where stuff doesn’t behave in the way intuition says it should.

Drat! I can’t make the indent go away. At any rate, do visit 2020 as Andrew to read more from this posting and at least one other where he has gotten permission to excerpt parts of the book (text and images).

US Dept. of Defense and children; applied science and Haiti

As I cover scientific research and the military from time to time and have long been interested in children and science, this news item from Cliff Kuang at Fast Company titled, Is DARPA’s Kids’ Initiative Funding Tomorrow’s Mathletes or “Terminator 5: Recess?”, caught my eye. For anyone not familiar with DARPA, it stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and it is part of the US Dept. of Defense. From the news item,

Anytime you hear news of government sponsored cyborg beetles or shape-shifting robotic blobs, it’s almost certain that Darpa is behind it. As the Pentagon’s skunk research programs, their sole aim is to fund research so far out and cutting edge that it isn’t yet on private industry’s radar. And now they’ve aimed their sights on a squishier but no less intractable problem: Getting more kids interested in technology careers.

Darpa’s RFP is barely written in English, but it contains some pretty sharp-eyed critiques of the current system. Darpa notes that even though there are plenty of sciency programs out there such as space camp, geared at middle-schoolers. But there’s not much else. The challenge is to create a continuum of activities that engage students all along the path from middle-school to college.

Kuang also mentions that the Time-Warner corporation is dedicating $100M US to a science mentorship program called, Connect a Million Minds.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, much of the consumer technology (e.g. television and the internet) we are familiar with was developed from military research. I was too outraged (youth and idealism) to finish reading the book  but as I recall, Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy makes much the same point in its opening chapters. In contrast to Kuang’s assertion (“… research so far out and cutting edge that it isn’t yet on private industry’s radar,” Bruce Mau’s 2004 design show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Massive Change, suggested that the process is being reversed and that the cutting edge technology is being developed for consumer use first and then making its way into military research labs.

I find both the timing for the DARPA and Time-Warner initiatives to be interesting in light of the Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 (released last week) where an alarm abut the state of science and technology research and innovation in the US  has been sounded. The indicators were previously mentioned (by me) here.

In all the talk about science and technology and their importance (real and/or imagined) for economic welfare, it can be easy to forget that there are other reasons to encourage it. This morning I saw a news item on physorg.com about the science and technology aspect (in this case, software-related) of the relief efforts for Haiti. From the news item,

Tim Schwartz, a 28-year-old artist and programmer in San Diego, feared that with an array of , crucial information about Haitian quake victims would “go everywhere on the Internet and it would be very hard to actually find people – and get back to their loved ones,” he said. So Schwartz quickly e-mailed “all the developers I’d ever worked with.”

In a few hours, he and 10 others had built http://www.haitianquake.com , an online lost-and-found to help Haitians in and out of the country locate missing relatives.

The database, which anyone can update, was online less than 24 hours after the quake struck, with more than 6,000 entries because Schwartz and his colleagues wrote an “scraper” that gathered data from a Red Cross site.

The speed in getting the site up was incredible then later, other people joined the party.

The New York Times, Miami Herald, CNN and others launched similar efforts. And two days later, had a similar tool running, PersonFinder, that the State Department promoted on its own Web site and Twitter. PersonFinder grew out of missing-persons technology developed after ravaged New Orleans in 2005.

This is where the story gets good.

Christopher Csikszentmihalyi, director of the Center for Future Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, advocated online for consolidating all such tools into the Google version so the information wouldn’t be stuck in competing projects. He considers PersonFinder, which can be embedded in any Web site and as of Tuesday had more than 32,000 records, a triumph because it “greatly increases the chances that Haitians in Haiti and abroad will be able to find each other.”

Schwartz agreed and folded his database into PersonFinder, which he thinks will become “THE application for missing people for this disaster and all disasters in the future.”

Yup, there’s more than one reason to encourage science and technology research and bravo to Schwartz for agreeing to consolidate his tool with Google’s PersonFinder.

UK science debate; nanotechnology narratives and Richard Feynman; buckyball game

After Friday’s posting about Canada’s political parties and their science policies (in most cases, a lack of) imagine my surprise on finding out that the UK has enjoyed a Jan. 13, 2010 debate on science (I believe there’s another one coming up  in March) featuring two shadow ministers and the current Minister for Science and Innovation.  It’s organized by the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK (CASE). Thanks to the Pasco Phronesis blog for pointing the way.

I have watched about 1/3 of the video for the debate and, as you’d expect, the politicians are carefully avoiding specifics, still they are discussing science policy. The focus in the bits I watched was on funding and the role of science in ensuring the UK’s future global competitiveness. You can go here to find the debate video and articles and blogs about it.

Coincidentally, the US President’s Office on Science and Technology Policy (Jan.20.10 correction: the report was released by the National Science Board) has recently (Jan.15.10) released the Science Engineering Indicators (Jan.20.10 correction: Science and Engineering Indicators 2010). From the news item on Science Daily,

“The data begin to tell a worrisome story,” said Kei Koizumi, assistant director for federal research and development (R&D)in the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Calling SEI 2010 a “State of the Union on science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” he noted that quot; [sic]U.S. dominance has eroded significantly.”

In terms of R&D expenditures as a share of economic output, while Japan has surpassed the U.S. for quite some time, South Korea is now in the lead–ahead of the U.S. and Japan. And why does this matter? Investment in R&D is a major driver of innovation, which builds on new knowledge and technologies, contributes to national competitiveness and furthers social welfare. R&D expenditures indicate the priority given to advancing science and technology (S&T) relative to other national goals.

On other fronts, I’ve come across more discussion about the nanotechnology ‘narrative’ and the anniversary of Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk, There’s plenty of room at the bottom (first mentioned in this blog here and here).  Richard Jones on his blog Soft Machines provides more depth to the story and suggests that the view which has K. Eric Drexler popularizing Feynman’s ideas (I had fallen into that camp) shortchanges Drexler. I must admit I did not recognize the importance of Drexler’s emphasis on biology in his vision in contrast with Feynman’s vision. You can read more about Richard Jones’ take on the matter here. I filched this link to yet another take on the matter (Feynman failed to recognize the importance of chemistry) from the comments section of Jones’ posting.

It can be tempting to view all this wrangling as a waste of time but somewhere in all of this is an attempt to make sense of how we understand and know things. Histories are important not because they tell us about the past but because they tell us how we got here.

I found this story and video about a Buckyball game on Boing Boing. For anyone who’s not familiar with buckyballs, go here.

Science policy and Canada’s political parties

After yesterday’s discussion of the Nature editorial on Canadian science policy or the lack thereof, I went in search of four federal political parties and their science policies. I looked at the websites for the Green Party, New Democrat Party, the Liberal Party, and the Conservative Party for their platforms and/or policy documents.

Coincidentally I found a mention of policy and the Liberal party in Barbara Yaffe’s Vancouver Sun column today (here) and discovered that the party leader, Michael Ignatieff, is making a campus tour of the country as part of a Liberal party public consultation. All this activity is leading up to a Liberal party policy convention in Montreal, March 26-28, 2010.

Back to my search, I did not dig deeply as I don’t believe these documents should be difficult to find. I could not find a set of policies or platform on the Liberal party website. The Green Party has a very easily found policy platform (Vision Green) which has no mention of science or research. Initially I couldn’t find any mention of the arts but those policies are to be found in the People section, Beauty and Integrity subsection. The New Democrat Party has its easily found platform here but no mention of science in it. As for the Conservative party, my hat’s off to them. Their policy declaration (found here and dated November 2008) was the only specific reference to science that I found. Like it or not, it’s in the section on Economic Development,

27. Science, Research and Development
i) The Conservative Party supports the establishment [sic] a single authority or single window to review big
science projects according to published guidelines. These types of projects are often tied up in the
bureaucracy because, under the current system, they are forced to seek funding from a myriad ofdepartments and agencies. A single-window approach would be more transparent for the research community and more accountable to Canadian taxpayers.
ii) We support the creation of an independent Chief Scientist who would advise and report to Parliament
on scientific matters, and help coordinate science policy issues within government, and internationally.
This office would be modeled on the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in the United
Kingdom. The Chief Scientist should be mandated by Parliament to provide independent and balanced
analysis of public policy issues related to science and technology. This information should be provided
openly to Parliamentarians and Canadians to enable informed decisions.
iii) We support the funding of innovation, technology and research through the granting councils. We
support a competitive peer review process and enhanced transparency and accountability to determine
who shall receive grants through these councils.
iv) We recognize the importance of private sector investment in research and development of commercial
applications. We recognize that the Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax
credit has been successful in spurring private investment in research and development. The government should work with stakeholders in all fields of research and various industry sectors to expand this tax credit. We support the elimination of the capital tax and the reduction of the capital gains tax because the
effectiveness of the SR&ED tax credit relies upon the general level of tax on capital and investment. In
principle, we believe the government should provide more scientific research and experimental
development tax incentives.

You’ll notice that item ii) supports the notion of an independent adviser or Chief Scientist. It sounds like an attempt to revive the now defunct science adviser position, eliminated after Harper took office, but they do mention modeling it on a UK institution. Of course, they haven’t actually created the position yet. Still, they’re the only Canadian political party that appears to have a science policy.

As per some of my comments yesterday about science and policy advisers in the US, I received a response from David Bruggeman who kindly clarified the situation for me here. You can read more about US science and technology policy (and other related issues) at David’s blog Pasco Phronesis. He does comment on the Nature editorial about Canadian science policy here as per their perspective on the American Association for the Advancement of Science as a lobby group.

Nature opines on lacking Canadian science policy; UK Science Ministry?

Why is the UK so interested in Canada? Well, maybe it’s not but this morning  it sure seems like it. On the heels of The Economist’s editorial last week about Canada’s prorogued Parliament (mentioned by me here), the prestigious UK science journal, Nature has published an editorial about Canadian science policy. Rob Annan at Don’t leave Canada behind has posted eloquently about the editorial here. The editorial itself can be read here. (I’m not sure what the journal’s policy is with regard to free access. Some journals give free access for a day or two after publication while others give access to editorials but not articles and so on …)

The points in the Nature editorial are well made. From the editorial,

More generally, Canada has no group comparable to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the United States for focusing attention on science policy. Lobbying of the government bodies that have power over science is fragmented. And Canada has nothing comparable to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is headed by a science adviser who reports directly to the US president. Canada did have a science adviser to the prime minister during 2004–08, but he was largely sidelined before the position was terminated. (There is currently only a ‘minister of state’ for science and technology, a junior post that lies within the industry ministry.) The council that replaced the science adviser is entirely reactive to government queries, and produces reports that traditionally are not made public.

It’s quite true that we don’t have the institutional structures that they mention (AAAS, Office of Science and Technology Policy, etc.) although, as they point out, we did have the now eradicated science adviser position. Canada’s Ministry of State for Science and Technology is indeed a junior ministry and I agree that it should be a more substantive ministry. In any event, I’m very happy to see some international attention paid to Canadian science and some of its strengths (they mention our academic science) and weaknesses.

Interestingly the UK has a Minister for Science and Innovation (jointly with Ministry of Defence)  but his (Lord Drayson’s) portfolio is part of their Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. In fact there are many ministers in this department as you can see here. There does appear to be a lead minister for the department (Lord Mandelson) but I wish they had an organizational and/or reporting structure diagram to clarify how this enormous department with all its ministers functions. Given that the UK science ministry does not exist and that the minister of science and innovation (intriguingly also associated with the Ministry of Defence) could be described as having a junior portfolio similar to our minister of state for science and technology, I’m wondering if Nature will editorialize about this situation from a global perspective. For example, is there a move to subsume science portfolios in other ministries or departments or are they being gradually promoted?

As for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the US, the current adviser for the Obama administration has a science background (is a scientist in fact) but I don’t believe that’s a requirement of the position. It is a political appointment and a president with majority support in congress (or possibly the senate or both) could appoint whomever (s)he chooses.

Getting back to the editorial, Canada does need a science policy and there are many ways to go about this as they have in other countries. There is no single solution and no magic bullet (remember? that was supposed to cure all cancers). This will take focused and continuous (i.e. forever) effort.

I expect I will continue this commentary tomorrow.