Monthly Archives: March 2010

Comment(s) on proposed Canadian nanotechnology legislation; UK goverment responds to nanotechnology and food report; skinput: a nanotechnology application some day?; Twisted poets

I solicited comments (on the proposed bill or interview) from a number of individuals  on the Canadian nanotechnology scene representing business, science, and non-governmental organizations on the heels of last week’s interview with Peter Julian, the Canadian MP, who has tabled a private member’s bill for nanotechnology legislation. The first to respond was,

Gilbert Walker
Interim Board Member, Nano Ontario
Professor, University of Toronto

Brief Bio: Professor Walker is the Canada Research Chair Professor for Molecular Microscopy and Nanophotonic Devices at the University of Toronto and Director of its Nanotechnology Network. He is the Scientific Director of BiopSys, the NSERC Strategic Network for Bioplasmonic Systems, which is developing nanotechnology based diagnostics for lung cancer and leukemia. See Walker serves the National Institutes of Health of the United States by reviewing their proposed activities in nanomedicine. He is a founding member of Nano Ontario and has served provincial and federal advisory groups on nanotechnology.

With regard to the details of what is being proposed in Bill C-494, I have not had a chance to examine the Bill in detail so I will have to reserve Judgment on that. However, nanotechnology will impact nearly all elements of industry and society; and Canada clearly needs a strategy for investment and development – a part of which involves a regulatory framework. Nano Ontario is deeply supportive of both Canadian and international efforts to develop standards and appropriate, scientifically informed regulation in nanotechnology. A number of Nano Ontario’s members are involved in standards and, through Health Canada and Environment Canada, efforts to amend the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to provide an evidence-based regulatory framework for nanotechnology. A clear regulatory framework is a critical condition for serious investment and development in nano science and technology.

Thank you Professor Walker for your comments. As other comments arrive I will be posting them here.

Peter Julian interview Part 1,Part 2, Part 3,  Comments: nanoAlberta

UK government responds to House of Lords report on nanotechnologies and food

Julian mentioned in part 2 of the interview that he and his team had reviewed and used some ideas from the select report into nanotechnologies and food from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. By coincidence, the UK government responded to the report’s recommendations here on March 25, 2010.

I’ve quickly skimmed the response and the government indicates that the first four recommendations (commercialization of the technology in the food industries) have already been dealt with through a number of initiatives.

The recommendations for filling knowledge gaps were a mixed bag with the government accepting a number of them. There was some hesitation about insisting that food companies report about their nanomaterials research even though the committee recommended that the information be kept in a confidential database so companies don’t lose their competitive advantages.  While the government agreed with the recommendation in principle it was felt that implementation is problematic and they are attempting to address the issue by other means. (Given that Julian’s proposed legislation includes a nanomaterials reporting plan, I wonder how it will be implemented in light of the difficulties expressed by the UK government.)

Recommendations for definitions achieved a much higher rate of acceptance than previous sections. Other recommendations in very brief sections are highly specific to the UK situation but the ones on regulatory frameworks were interesting as the UK is cooperating with the European Union efforts. The report reveals some of the complications arising from regulation when you have to take into account evolving international agreements.

The final section focuses on recommendations for communication and public engagement. At the time I commented on the report, I felt that these were the weakest recommendations. The government agreed with most of these recommendations or noted that they are addressed in the UK National Nanotechnologies Strategy.


The body as a user interface is not an especially new concept but this seems like a very engaging approach to the idea. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Certainly not nanotechnology (yet) but you can clearly see where this could be going with nanoelectronic devices and sensors…

Skinput is a novel, non-invasive technology that appropriates the human body for acoustic transmission and allows the skin to be used as an input surface. Research findings on this always available, naturally portable, on-body finger input system will be presented at the next ACM Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference, CHI 2010.

Nanowerk also has a ‘skinput’ video with someone demonstrating what this could look like. The CHI conference will take place, April 10-15, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Twisted Poets

On the local (Vancouver) poetry scene, Pandora’s Collective is presenting an evening of the stuff on April 1, 2010. I wonder if they’re going to have an April fool theme?


Thursday, April 1, 2010

7:00pm – 9:00pm

Cambie Bakery & Cafe
312 Cambie St (north of Hastings)
Vancouver, BC

In the spirit of Vancouver all poets are welcome. Come out and bring your best, favourite, newest, oldest poems, and share in an evening of literary surprises.

Hosts: Bonnie Nish and Sita Carboni

Whether hosting the poetry slams at the Café Deux Soleils, hosting the radio show “Wax Poetic” on Coop Radio 102.7, Wednesday afternoons or performing as part of Vancouver’s Slam Poetry team, R.C. Weslowski has worked hard to advance and promote the art of spoken word in our city.

Poet, author, musician and media artist Heather Susan Haley has been published in numerous journals and anthologies, her poetry collections Sideways (Anvil Press) and Three Blocks West of Wonderland (Ekstasis Editions) described as “supple and unusual,” “brawny and uncompromising.”

Peter Julian’s interview about proposing Canada’s first nanotechnology legislation (part 2 of 3); more on the UK Nanotechnologies Strategy; Dylan Thomas, neuroscience and an open reading

This is part 2 of an interview with Member of Parliament, Peter Julian, NDP (New Democrat Party) who tabled the first Canadian bill to regulate nanotechnology. Yesterday’s part of the interview featured some biographical notes about Mr. Julian and his answers to questions about why he, in particular, tabled the bill; the NDP’s shadow science minister’s (Jim Malloway) involvement; and the NDP’s commitment to science policy. Today, Julian explains why he favours the application of the precautionary principle to nanotechnology, notes the research he used before writing his bill, and comments on a national inventory scheme. NOTE: As some folks may prefer other media or summaries/commentaries on these reports, in situations where I have additional material, I’ve taken the liberty of giving links, clearly marking my additions.

Why do you favour applying the precautionary principle which has received some criticism as it favours the status quo?

I believe that the precautionary principle does not favour the status quo. The status quo hinders appropriate applications of precaution. Environmental, health, and safety gaps in the application of Nanotechnology are a shared concern between countries, as reflected in recent reports to Congress and the EU and at the OECD. Precaution towards discovery, product, production, use and eventual disposal is simple common sense.

The precautionary principle deters action without reflection. When a product is massively put on the market we have to be sure that it will not have adverse effects on health and the environment, and not just a short lived positive effect on the bottom line.

What research materials support your (BILL) and are these materials that you would recommend interested citizens read?

I have a list of links concerning these materials:

ED. NOTE:  I offered some commentary here and links to other commentaries here about this report.

  • The Chatham House briefing paper, Regulating Nanomaterials: A Transatlantic Agenda (September 2009) an excellent eight page read:

ED. NOTE: There is a Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN)webcast of a presentation by the folks who authored the report. The webcast and speaker presentations can be found here and my commentary on the webcast here.

ED. NOTE: PEN webcast a presentation by J. Clarence Davies on Oversight of Next Generation Nanotechnology available here along with a speaker’s presentation and additional materials.

  • The National Nanotechnology Initiative document lays out a substantive, and sound, research program. Canada’s strategy remains limited in scope and vision.

I noticed mention of a public inventory for nanomaterials and it reminded me of a proposed Environment Canada nanomaterials inventory or reporting plan that was announced in January 2008. Do you know if this inventory ever took place or what its current status is?

The inventory is not completed yet. The bill develops a mandatory requirement for an inventory and there have been no prior operational inventories regarding nanotechnology products, which is why this bill is so important.

I would like to stress that in addition to the precautionary principle, Bill C-494 is built on a definition of Nanotechnology that adopts a broader and more inclusive definition of nanomaterials. This is consistent with the findings of the UK House of Lords Science and Technology Committee:

  • We recommend that the Government should work towards ensuring that any regulatory definition of nanomaterials proposed at a European level, in particular in the Novel Foods Regulation, should not include a size limit of 100nm but instead refer to ‘the nanoscale’ to ensure that all materials with a dimension under 1000nm are considered.A change in functionality, meaning how a substance interacts with the body, should be the factor that distinguishes a nanomaterial from its larger form within the nanoscale.

UK House of Lords Science and Technology Committee
Nanotechnologies and Food (8 January 2010)
Recommendation 12, p.76

This is in contrast with Health Canada policy which looks at narrow definition of nanomaterials:

  • Health Canada’s Science Policy Directorate announced the adoption of the Interim Policy Statement on Health Canada’s Working Definition for Nanomaterials and its posting on the Health Canada website 2 March 2010. This Government of Canada policy adopts a 1-100nm “inclusive” regulatory benchmark, effective immediately, with a public comment period underway.

ED. NOTE: I made an error in my question, the proposed nano inventory by Environment Canada was announced in Jan. 2009. My postings on the announcement are here and here. The odd thing about the announcement was that it was made initially by PEN which is located in Washington, DC and subsequently picked up by Canadian news media. As far as I know, Environment Canada has never offered comment about its 2009 plan for a nanotechnology inventory.

Tomorrow Julian wraps up with answers to questions about why someone who’s shadow portfolio includes international trade is interested in nanotechnology and the potential costs for his proposed legislation.

Peter Julian interview Part 1, Part 3, Comments: Nano Ontario, Comments: nanoAlberta

More on the UK 2010 Nanotechnologies Strategy Report

Dexter Johnson over on Nanoclast has done some detective work in a bid to understand why the market numbers used in the report differ wildly from anyone else’s. From Dexter’s posting,

It [the report] quotes market numbers for nano-enabled products that are such a drastic departure from most estimates that it leaves one questioning why tens of billions of dollars are being poured in by governments around the world to fund research.

If you have it, do take the time to follow along as Dexter  trails the company that the UK government used as its source for their market numbers. Amongst other names, I recognized one, ObservatoryNANO. (It was an organization I followed briefly and dismissed as being frivolous.)

One other commenter has emerged, Tim Harper. Now as the  principle of a nanotechnology business consulting company (Cientifica) some might be inclined to dismiss his comments but they have the ring of honest frustration and a sincere desire to contribute. From Harper’s posting,

Every UK nanotech report to date has excluded any data provided by UK companies. Even offers of free copies of our market research to government committees looking into various bits of nanotechnology provoke the same response as if we’d offered them a fresh dog turd wrapped in newspaper.

And now for a complete change of pace,

Dylan Thomas and neuroscience

There‘s an event tonight  (Thursday, March 25, 2010) in Vancouver being put on by the Dylan Thomas Circle (he lived in North Vancouver for a time as he worked on Under the volcano). It’s being held at the Red Dragon Pub at the Cambrian Hall on 17th & Main St.  Doors open at 6:45 pm and the presentation starts at 7:30 pm followed by an open reading. From the news release,


“Dylan Thomas, Creativity and Neuroscience”

Ariadne Sawyer will lead an exploration into creativity and the creative process as manifest through the works and the life of Dylan Thomas. She will investigate why we are creative, what happens during the creative process and what effect it has upon us.

This will be followed by an intermission and an: ‘OPEN READING’: an invitation to everyone who is interested to read aloud a poem or literary excerpt of their choice. This can be your own work, Dylan’s work or any other writer’s material. Most importantly, it is our chance to indulge in a little of our own creativity and to do it in a relaxed and in a friendly atmosphere.

About Ariadne Sawyer:

Ariadne has done on line Performance Plus Coaching with trainees from England, France, Canada and the United States for the last two years. She has received the Award of Excellence given by McLean-Hunter for the Brain Bulletin Series. Ariadne publishes an electronic newsletter called: Ariadne’s Performance Plus Newsletter along with Performance Plus Tips which are sent to all the participating trainees. She also co-hosts a weekly radio program on CFRO 102.7 FM, which has been on the air for the past two years. The Performance Plus Mini Course has been presented on the show with astounding success. She has two electronic courses available soon on the Internet. Performance Plus Level One and the Performance Plus Diplomacy Course. Ariadne has worked with trainees from Europe, the US and across Canada.

Peter Julian interview on tabling the first nanotechnology bill in Canada’s parliament (part 1 of 3); musings on oil-rich regions and nanotechnology

In mid-March 2010, Member of Parliament, Peter Julian, NDP (New Democrat Party) tabled the first Canadian bill (ETA June 22, 2010: Bill C-494) to regulate nanotechnology. Kudos to him for bringing nanotechnology into a national public forum and hopefully inspiring some discussion and debate.

Mr. Julian kindly agreed (thank you!) to answer some e-mail interview questions which I will be posting in a 3-part interview starting today where he answers questions about why he tabled the bill, the involvement of the NDP’s science shadow minister, and the state of the NDP’s science policy.

For anyone who’s not familiar with Mr. Julian, I got some biographical information from his constituency website,

Peter Julian

Member of Parliament, Burnaby–New Westminster
International Trade
Asia-Pacific Gateway
Deputy Critic Fisheries (West Coast Fisheries)
2010 Olympics

  • Has been the most active MP from Western Canada so far in the 40th Parliament.
  • First elected Member of Parliament for Burnaby-New Westminster in 2004 (by a narrow margin of 300 votes), and re-elected in 2006 (by 4,000 votes) and again in 2008 (by 7,000 votes).
  • Served as Critic on International Trade, Transportation, Persons with Disabilities, Gateways and the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in 39th Parliament; Critic on International Trade, the Treasury Board, Transportation and Persons with Disabilities in 38th Parliament.
  • Ranked fifth of 308 MPs in crafting of Private Member’s legislation in 39th Parliament including tougher drunk driving laws and eliminating toxic substances found in fire retardants.
  • Most active rookie in the House of Commons in the 38th Parliament.
  • Prominent critic of Harper Conservatives’ softwood lumber sellout. Called “the Iron Man” by CTV’s David Akin for determination to stop the sellout.
  • Previously a financial administrator, community activist and manual labourer. Served as National Executive Director of Council of Canadians – (founding member), former Executive Director of the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (WIDHH).
  • Instrumental in building the British Columbia Disability Employment Network
  • Former National Policy Coordinator and Assistant and Acting Federal Secretary of the New Democratic Party of Canada.

Now on to the interview:

What was the impetus for including nanotechnology as part of this bill? i.e. was there some specific incident or has this been an ongoing concern?

The major forces for including my bill on nanotechnology were; the concerns raised by constituents, the progressive work done by the European Union (including the EU Council Directive on cosmetic products and the January 2010 report of the UK’s House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Report). In contrast Canada has made minimal progress towards ensuring that nanotechnology discoveries are safely introduced into the marketplace, environment, and to Canadians.

The exponential increase in applications and products using this type of technology makes updating the regulatory framework necessary. A regulatory vacuum cannot persist if the commercial and societal promises of nanotechnologies are to be fulfilled. There are trade and safety implications involved.

A modernized regulatory framework, based on precaution given the rapid evolution of nanotechnologies, would help ensure that Canadians will be protected from unintended effects. At the same time, it would enable Canadian businesses to enjoy a predictable regulatory environment for investment and innovation, for nanotechnology is a key driver in Canada’s continued growth via sustainable development.

The following are the key components of Bill C-494:

A) A definition of Nanotechnology definition based on “nanometre scale” (1-1000nm),

B) Prescribed Government of Canada research and studies, with the precautionary principle providing direction for a ‘life-cycle’ approach to nanotechnology, and,

C) A Nanotechnology Inventory established and published.

I believe that the definition contained in Bill C-494 constitutes the first legislative body effort since UK House of Lords Committee recommended a similar nanometre scale definition.

Was the NDP’s science shadow minister involved in this bill? What was Jim Malloway’s contribution?

As you may know, private members bills are at the initiative of individual MPs. I have consulted with the NDP Environment and Health critics, in addition to our own research, library of Parliament support, and input from civil society. Jim Malloway and the NDP caucus support the principle of Bill C-494 and share the view that Nanotechnologies present a tremendous opportunity for Canada and that is why safety must be ensured.

Is there going to be more interest in science policy from the NDP?

The NDP is focused on securing sound foundations for science policy by making sure the government has enough resources to support the development of science while monitoring the consequences. We are also focused on ensuring that funding for post secondary education is appropriate and the resources and knowhow of the public sector are not trivialized and outsourced. The civil service needs a critical mass of expertise to support a healthy science development policy. We must encourage and preserve independent research at the university level and make sure that it is not subservient to corporate funding. Science must be allowed to evolve regardless of the commercial aspect. Our small caucus is focused on helping create these conditions where Canadian science and its applications can flourish in both private and not-for-profit spheres, with appropriate regulatory safeguards.

Tomorrow: Mr. Julian answers questions about the ‘precautionary principle’ and the research that supports his bill.

Peter Julian interview Part 2, Part 3, Comments: Nano Ontario, Comments: nanoAlberta

Oil-rich regions and nano

I had a few idle thoughts on seeing a notice on Nanowerk in mid-March that Iran has published a national nanotechnology standard. From the notice on Nanowerk,

The committee of Iranian nanotechnology standardization chose 49 main words in nanotechnology by means of ISO, BSI, and ASTM published standards and translated their definitions into Persian in cooperation with a team from Persian Language and Literature Academy.

The words like nanotechnology, nanomaterials, nanoparticle, nanoscale, nanotube, nanosystem etc have been defined in this standard.

(I did click on the link for the publication but unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be an English language version available.)

I find it interesting that there is so much activity on the nanotechnology front in Iran and other other oil-producing regions including Alberta (Canada) which hosts the National Institute for Nanotechnology and gets a great deal of funding from the Alberta provincial government. Texas, also known for its oil, hosts a leader in nanotechnology research, Rice University which is celebrating its 25th anniversary as the site where ‘bucky balls’ or buckminster fullerenes were first discovered. In Saudi Arabia, they opened KAUST (King Abdullah University for Science and Technology) in September 2009. While the ambitions range far beyond (the Saudis hope to establish a modern ‘House of Wisdom’) nanotechnology, its research is an important element in the overall scheme of things. I guess the reason that all these areas which are known for their oil production are so invested in nanotechnology is that they know time is running out and they need new ways to keep their economies afloat.

New nano job board; Canadian science and technology strategy inferred by climate debate and 2010 federal budget?

Happy job hunting! Nanowerk has announced a new initiative (from the announcement),

Nanowerk, the leading information provider for all areas of nanotechnologies, today added to its nanotechnology information portal a new free job posting service.

The new application, called nanoJOBS, is available immediately on the Nanowerk website.

By posting their job openings on Nanowerk’s new nanoJOBS service, employers will reach a large audience in the areas of nanotechnologies, chemistry, physics, material sciences & engineering, medical technologies & pharmaceuticals, electronics, laboratory equipment, and all sectors involving state-of-the-art process technologies.

Like all other Nanowerk databases and directories, the nanoJOBS job postings are freely accessible. Employers need to register once and, in order to assure a high level of quality, their postings will be validated and approved by a Nanowerk administrator.

On other fronts, I mentioned climate science yesterday (March 22, 2010) in the context of public perception and how slow they can be to change.  Today I noticed a posting by Dave at The Black Hole blog which comes at the issue from a different angle. In the context of discussing science outreach in the UK, Dave describes two different lectures (pro and con) on climate change held at Cambridge. With some reluctance, Dave admits that the speaker (Nigel Lawson) on the ‘con’ side gave a better presentation and the ‘pro’ questioners at Lawson’s session were shrill and ill-considered (my words for the behaviour). As for Dave’s advice on how to ask politicians questions,

If you’re asking a politician a question, make it a yes or no question – people like Nigel Lawson are experts at saying what they want to say no matter what you ask, try boxing them in with logic and simplicity.

At the end of his post, Dave points to a March 18, 2010 article on Canadian climate science, the government’s attitude to it, and the 2010 federal budget in the Guardian newspaper. Titled Canadian government ‘hiding truth about climate change’, report claims by Stephen Leahy, the article notes that the Canadian federal 2010 budget did not allocate a single cent to climate change science with the consequence that the programmes will run out of money in early 2011. The Climate Action Network had obviously realized which way the wind was blowing as this nongovernmental organization released a report titled Troubling Evidence: The Harper Government’s Approach to Climate Science Research in Canada a few days after the budget was announced. From the Guardian article,

Climate change is not an abstract concept. It already results in the deaths of 300,000 people a year, virtually all in the world’s poorest countries. Some 325 million people are being seriously affected, with economic losses averaging 125 billion dollars a year, according to “The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis”, the first detailed look at climate change and the human impacts.

Canadians are unlikely to know any of this. [emphasis mine]

“Media coverage of climate change science, our most high-profile issue, has been reduced by over 80 percent,” says internal government documents obtained by Climate Action Network.

The dramatic decline results from a 2007 Harper government-imposed prohibition on government scientists speaking to reporters. Canadian scientists have told IPS they required permission from the prime minister’s communications office to comment on their own studies made public in scientific journals and reports.

If permission is granted, it requires written questions submitted in advance and often replies by scientists have to go through a vetting process. Within six months, reporters stopped calling and media coverage declined, the leaked report noted.

While climate experts were being muzzled, known climate change deniers were put in key positions on scientific funding bodies says Saul. The report documents three appointments and their public statements that climate change is a myth or exaggerated.

(One brief aside: the suggestion elsewhere  in the article that Maxime Bernier, former External Affairs minister, might one day step into the Prime Minister’s Office suggests that the reporter is not very familiar with Canadian politics. Also, he fails to note Harper’s roots in Alberta.) I’ve written previously about the 2007 muzzle which I believe sent a chill throughout the entire federal science community not just the scientists working for Environment Canada.

Before making some inferences about science and technology strategy/policy in Canada I need to offer some context. There is a stunning indifference to science policy amongst Canada’s political parties (I have more about that and links here). The only party which evinces an official strategy is the Conservative Party currently in office. The strategy occupies four bullet points in a very tightly written party platform. None of the other federal parties offers any science policy information on their websites. (Note: Marc Garneau of the Liberals has written up a document on his own initiative. You can find the links here.)

The Conservative government has consistently sent out messages about its attitude to science. If it makes money, it is good;  not unusual, as it is part of an international shift towards monetizing science research as quickly as possible. The Canadian difference is that there is no clear direction, i.e. no national science policy. (The prestigious international science journal, Nature,  published an editorial about the situation, which I mentioned here.)

The Canadian government does not have a chief science advisor (that office was cancelled in 2006 2008 [Corrected Mar.24.10 as per Wikipedia entry thanks to Shewonk for the date and do read her blog for another take on what she calls the anti-science attitude in Canada]) and replaced the position with a new advisory board reporting to the Minister of Industry called the  Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC ).

In the 2010 budget, the government announced that 245 positions on various boards would be cut for a saving of approximately $1M with no mention made in the news report as to which boards would suffer cuts or how the decisions would be made as to which positions would be lost due to attrition. (Given that STIC has 17 members on its board, I would imagine that there is some fat to be lost. However, it’s been my experience that the fat gets retained while the meat is discarded.)

In the 2009 budget, Genome Canada was ignored and the tri-council funding agencies suffered cuts. This year some money has been restored to the tri-council and Genome Canada and some science agencies such as TRIUMF (nuclear research facility at the University of British Columbia) have enjoyed substantive new funding while climate scientists have been thoroughly ignored.

The consistent messages to be derived are (1) that science will be somewhat supported for a time and (2) science that we (Conservatives) don’t approve of will be strangled (not unusual and not confined to the Canadian situation). Other than a few distinct areas such as climate change, drug addiction (Insite facility in Vancouver), and, apparently, Genomic research, there is no clear understanding as to which research is acceptable. Presumably there is interest in research where investments will show profit but if that were the case, why no clear focus on emerging technologies such as (I use this example only because I’m somewhat familiar with the subject area) nanotechnology? In fact, I’d like a clear focus, let’s call it a policy, on anything scientific.

If one is of Machiavellian inclinations, one might suspect a strategy of deliberate confusion as the government keeps the science community off-balance (it’s a guessing game as to which agency/group(s) will lose in the 2011 budget), confused (no science policy/direction) and from banding together (some groups did very well in the 2010 budget and have no incentive to complain as they have funding for the next 5 years).

It’s easy to blame the Conservative government currently in power but I think that Canadian scientists should bear some of the burden. There is very little substantive outreach or attempt to communicate to politicians or the public in an attempt to put science policy forward in any kind of national debate. Where is the Canadian equivalent to a Royal Society in the UK or the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the US?

In the meantime, I just got a notice that Carl Weiman (currently a professor at the University of British Columbia) has been nominated for an appointment as Associate Director of Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Weiman has accepted the nomination. From the news release,

Wieman, a 2001 Nobel Laureate joined UBC’s Faculty of Science in 2007 as professor of Physics and Director of the $12 million Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) to transform the teaching of science at UBC and elsewhere. He will take an unpaid leave of absence from the university upon confirmation of his appointment by the US Senate.

Wieman came to UBC from the University of Colorado, where he won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics and where he maintains a part-time appointment to head up an education project similar to the CWSEI.

Interesting, non?

Before I sign off, do read Rob Annan’s latest, scathingly funny/sad roundup and analysis of responses to the federal 2010 budget now that the dust is starting to settle.

Tomorrow: my interview with Peter Julian, the NDP member of Parliament who has tabled Canada’s first nanotechnology bill.

Public opinion doesn’t shake easily; Wilson talk on Artificial Intelligence

Over on the Framing Science blog, Matthew C. Nisbet has posted about the impact that ClimateGate has not had on public opinion about climate change. From the post,

The full report [by Jon Krosnick, professor at Stanford University, on most recent public opinion poll about cljmate change and ClimateGate] should be read, but below I feature several key conclusions. Despite alarm over the presumed impact of ClimateGate, Krosnick’s  analysis reveals very little influence for this event. More research is likely to come on this issue and this is just the first systematic analysis to be released.

Yet there is an even more interesting question emerging here than the impact of ClimateGate on public opinion: If communication researchers have difficulty discerning a meaningful impact for ClimateGate, why do so many scientists and advocates continue to misread public opinion on climate change and to misunderstand the influence of the news media? As I argue below, an additional object of study in this case should be the factors shaping the perceptions of scientists and advocates.

—>Krosnick’s analysis estimates that the percentage of Americans who believe in global warming has only dropped 5% since 2008 and that ClimateGate has had no meaningful impact on trust in climate scientists which stands at 70% (essentially the same as the 68% level in 2008).

A 5% drop isn’t to be sneezed at but taken into perspective it is predictable and, assuming these are ‘good’ figures, then in the short term, there has not been an appreciable impact. Makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, most people don’t change their opinions that easily. Oh they might have a crisis of confidence or a momentary hysterical response (I confess) but most of our opinions about important issues tend to persist over time and in the face of contradictory evidence.

Nisbet’s post makes reference to some other work, this time on scientists’ ideologies (liberal or conservative [not the Canadian political parties]) done by the Pew Research Center and released in July 2009. (Nisbet’s comments on ideology and scientists here and the Pew Research Center study here) Intriguingly, there’s a larger percentage of scientists (50%) self-identified as liberal than members of the general public (20%).

According to work published shortly after and mentioned on this blog here in a comment about the public’s focus on the benefits of nanotechnology while scientists focus on risks and economic value, by Elizabeth Corley (Arizona State University), this difference in focus may have something to do with ideology,  from the news release,

Decision-makers often rely on the input of scientists when setting policies on nanotechnology because of the high degree of scientific uncertainty – and the lack of data – about its risks, Corley says.

“This difference in the way nanoscientists and the public think about regulations is important for policymakers (to take into consideration) if they are planning to include both groups in the policymaking process for nanotechnology,” says Corley.

The study also reveals an interesting divide within the group of nanoscientists. Economically conservative scientists were less likely to support regulations, while economically liberal scientists were more likely to do so.

This suggests that a more nuanced approach to measuring public perception may be emerging despite  the rather disappointing meta analysis by Dr. Terre Satterfield of public perceptions about nanotechnology benefits and risks (mentioned on this blog here).

On a completely other note, I recently attended a lecture/presentation by Elizabeth Wilson, professor of Women’s Studies at Emory University (Atlanta, Georgia, US) given at the Green College at the University of British Columbia about artificial intelligence circa the early 1960s, titled, “Extravagance of affect:; How to build an artificial mind. I’m not sure who this lecture was aimed at. While I was deeply thankful for her detailed explanations of basic concepts, presumably people in the field of Women’s Studies wouldn’t have needed so much explanation.  Conversely, her presentation had some gaps where she jumped over things which you can only do if your audience is well versed on the topic.

I haven’t seen much about emotions and artificial intelligence prior to this talk so maybe Wilson is forging into new territory and over time will get better at presenting her material to audiences who are not familiar with her specialty. In the meantime, I’m not sure what to make of her work.

Later this week, I’m hoping to be publishing an interview with Peter Julian the NDP member of Parliament (Canada) who recently tabled a member’s bill on nanotechnology.

A few comments about the UK National Nanotechnologies Strategy; NSERC and the naughty nanoscientist; Vancouver’s first NightHawk Festival

As I noted yesterday, the UK National Nanotechnologies Strategy has been released by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. (More about the strategy report here from the government website.) Andrew Maynard (2020 Science) has been quick off the mark with his very insightful analysis. A few tidbits from Andrew’s comments,

… there is no specific emphasis on exploratory science. The implicit assumption is that the machinery of knowledge generation – funding for exploratory research, and the expertise to generate new knowledge – is in place.  But this is a very rash assumption indeed.  Without strategic investment in funding exploratory nanoscale science, especially at the interface between disciplines, the UK is likely to loose out to other countries that recognize the need to drive innovation through knowledge creation.  The US and China in particular are steaming ahead here – without a clear research strategy, the UK is destined to become marginalized.

There are a number of places in the report where the data are suspect – especially in the section dealing with business, industry and innovation.  At the least, I would expect a Government-level report to get the facts right.  For instance, it is claimed that the UK is fourth in the world in terms of the number of nanotechnology patents applied for, after the US, Japan and Germany.  Yet the latest figures – published last year [abstract only, article is behind a paywall]– show the UK ranking 11th in terms of the number of patents filed in the country (in 2008, 68 nanotechnology patents were filed in the UK, compared to 3,729 in the US and 5,030 in China.  That’s around 0.5% of all nanotechnology patents filed in 2008).

While I have some doubts about using patents as a measure for scientific progress/leadership, I quite agree that one’s data should be accurate as possible.

Andrew also comments on the prophylactic quality of the public engagement they are recommending as well as many other aspects of the report. (my past posts on a similar concern from Jan. 14, 2009, Jan. 15, 2009, Jan. 16, 2009 and Jan. 19, 2009)

I have looked at the first few pages and will likely read on but am not able to offer the comprehensive and informed critique that Andrew (and his commenters) offer. I do have one quick comment of my own, the definition for nanotechnology on p. 6 of the report seems to suggest that milk is a nanotechnology product.

A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre,
or around 80,000 times smaller than the
diameter of a human hair.

Nanoparticles exist in nature. For example,
milk contains nanoscale droplets of fat and
every cell in your body relies on nanosized
protein complexes to function.

One definition of a nanomaterial is a
material with at least one dimension in the
nanoscale (between 1-100nm). They can be
particulate in nature, for example nano
titanium dioxide, fibre-like, for example
carbon nanotubes or sheet-like, for example
graphene. Nanomaterials can also be defined
in terms of their functionality, as opposed to
relying strictly on their size alone.

Nanotechnologies can be thought of as
any technology which either incorporates or
employs nanomaterials or involves processes
performed at the nanoscale.

If nanotechnology “incorporates or employs nanomaterials or involved processes performed at the nanoscale”, and milk contains nanoscale droplets of fat (employing a nanomaterial) then milk is a nanotechnology product. Defining nanotechnology is a bit of a problem and I think what happened here is that they were trying to be succinct. The other and larger problem is that there doesn’t appear to be a universal standard definition yet.

Last week featured a widely distributed article by Margaret Munro about Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Council (NSERC) banning a researcher (Daniel Kwok) from receiving funding due to alleged malfeasance. The brilliant engineer made international headlines (2003) with his colleague, Larry Kostiuk, when they developed a device that produces electricity from water. Over the years, this nanotechnology engineer has received almost $2M in funding from various federal agencies. Unfortunately, he appears to have used some of his grant monies for personal use. Since he has been found out he has returned over $24,500.

By 2005, the researcher’s ethics breaches came to light and then the case was turned over to the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) in 2006.  The researcher was banned from further funding in 2009. (There have also been accusations of plagiarism but no details are offered in Munro’s article due to the officials’ refusal to elaborate.) From the article in the Montréal Gazette,

The documents point to major problems with oversight of Canada’s multibillion-dollar research system — holes so glaring that one leading ethics expert says he hopes the case will jolt federal politicians into giving “marching orders” to Canada’s research councils and universities to get their act together.

“There is a public accountability here that is just missing,” says Michael McDonald, founding director of the centre for applied ethics at the University of British Columbia.

I’m never thrilled when I hear about people taking advantage of or cheating the system but, realistically, it happens. I’m not sure why McDonald is jumping up and down so hard. All institutions take forever to respond to breaches, assuming they do respond. They are as slow to pursue serious breaches of trust as they are to correct their own mistakes (I”m thinking of the Revenue Canada Agency and some of their well documented errors leading to the destruction of some people’s livelihood).

Before anyone starts developing new oversight policies, I think some questions need to be asked. Exactly what is the nature of the problem? Is there widespread malfeasance or is this a rare case? If it’s a rare occurrence, then what is the problem? One has to assume that things go wrong occasionally so what would be the point of burdening the system with additional red tape? Is the problem that it took NSERC too long to respond? Then design a response system that is timely without being precipitous, after all this someone’s career and livelihood at stake.

Unfortunately, I think the bureaucrats will respond in an hysterical fashion, developing new policies that make the grant application process more onerous than ever while likely not improving their own response issues.

To leave on a more cheerful note, Vancouver’s first Nighthawk Festival is on Sunday, March 21, 2010 at Crab Park (Vancouver), 2-9 pm. From the news release,

Welcome to the 1st Annual Nighthawk Aboriginal Arts & Music Festival.

The Nighthawk Aboriginal Arts & Music Festival is a project of the Downtown Eastside Centre For The Arts and will take place on Sunday March 21 at Crab Park, 2-9pm and is for and about community.

The intention of this festival is, at a grass- roots level, to share and celebrate our traditions and culture with the broader Lower Mainland community.

The NightHawk Aboriginal Arts & Music Festival will feature:

…traditional drummers …contemporary musicians/youth/adults

…traditional food …artisans from various disciplines

…a children’s teepee

We believe that this event is timely in its creation as our community continues to rebuild and strengthen; well-known aboriginal artists continue to receive increased recognition; youth continue to create innovative and new ways to communicate through the arts, and new young artists continue to develop their crafts – whether it be through performance or other disciplines.

Performers include:

INEZ, Murray Porter Band, Starmakerz featuring

HellnBack, Dalannah Gail Bowen & Straight-Up, Buffalo Spirit Drum, children’s performer Dennis Lakusta, Shakti Hayes & Buffalo Thompson, First Ladies Crew and Iskwew and more.

Vancouver, we invite you to join us as we launch the 1st Annual NightHawk Aboriginal Arts & Music Festival!

Happy weekend!

Responsible science communication and magic bullets; lego and pasta analogies; sing about physics

Cancer’s ‘magic bullet],  a term which has been around for decades, is falling into disuse and deservedly. So it’s disturbing to see it used by someone in McGill University’s (Montreal, Canada) communications department for a recent breakthrough by their researchers.

The reason ‘magic bullet for cancer’ has been falling into is disuse because it does not function well as a metaphor with what we now know about biology. (The term itself dates from the 19th century and chemist, Paul Erlich.) It continues to exist because it’s an easy (and lazy) way to get attention and headlines. Unfortunately, hyperbolic writing of this type obscures the extraordinary and exciting work that researchers are accomplishing. From the news release on the McGill website (also available on Nanowerk here),

A team of McGill Chemistry Department researchers led by Dr. Hanadi Sleiman has achieved a major breakthrough in the development of nanotubes – tiny “magic bullets” that could one day deliver drugs to specific diseased cells.

The lead researcher seems less inclined to irresponsible hyperbole,

One of the possible future applications for this discovery is cancer treatment. However, Sleiman cautions, “we are still far from being able to treat diseases using this technology; this is only a step in that direction. Researchers need to learn how to take these DNA nanostructures, such as the nanotubes here, and bring them back to biology to solve problems in nanomedicine, from drug delivery, to tissue engineering to sensors,” she said.

You’ll notice that the researcher says these ‘DNA nanotubes’ have to be brought “back to biology.” This comment brought to mind a recent post on 2020 Science (Andrew Maynard’s blog) about noted chemist and nanoscientist’s, George Whitesides, concerns/doubts about the direction for cancer and nanotechnology research. From Andrew’s post,

Cancer treatment has been a poster-child for nanotechnology for almost as long as I’ve been involved with the field. As far back as in 1999, a brochure on nanotechnology published by the US government described future “synthetic anti-body-like nanoscale drugs or devices that might seek out and destroy malignant cells wherever they might be in the body.”

So I was somewhat surprised to see the eminent chemist and nano-scientist George Whitesides questioning how much progress we’ve made in developing nanotechnology-based cancer treatments, in an article published in the Columbia Chronicle.

Whitesides comments are quite illuminating (from the article, Microscopic particles have huge possibilites [sic], by Ivana Susic,

George Whitesides, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, said that while the technology sounds impressive, he thinks the focus should be on using nanoparticles in imaging and diagnosing, not treatment.

The problem lies in being able to deliver the treatment to the right cells, and Whitesides said this has proven difficult.

“Cancer cells are abnormal cells, but they’re still us,” he said. [emphasis is mine]

The nanoparticles sent in to destroy the cancer cells may also destroy unaffected cells, because they can sometimes have cancer markers even if they’re healthy. Tumors have also been known to be “genetically flexible” and mutate around several different therapies, Whitesides explained. This keeps them from getting recognized by the therapeutic drugs.

The other problem with targeting cancer cells is the likelihood that only large tumors will be targeted, missing smaller clumps of developing tumors.

“We need something that finds isolated [cancer] clumps that’s somewhere else in the tissue … it’s not a tumor, it’s a whole bunch of tumors,” Whitesides said.

The upside to the treatment possibilities is that they buy the patient time, he said, which is very important to many cancer patients.

“It’s easy to say that one is going to have a particle that’s going to recognize the tumor once it gets there and will do something that triggers the death of the cell, it’s just that we don’t know how to do either one of these parts,” he said.

There is no simple solution. The more scientists learn about biology the more complicated it becomes, not less. [emphasis is mine] Whitesides said one effective way to deal with cancer is to reduce the risk of getting it by reducing the environmental factors that lead to cancer.

It’s a biology problem, not a particle problem,” he said. [emphasis is mine]

If you are interested , do read Andrew’s post and the comments that follow as well as the article that includes Whitesides’ comments and quotes from Andrew in his guise as Chief Science Advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

All of this discussion follows on yesterday’s (Mar.17.10) post about how confusing inaccurate science reporting can be.

Moving onwards to two analogies, lego and pasta. Researchers at the University of Glasgow have ‘built’ inorganic (not carbon-based) molecular structures which could potentionally be used as more energy efficient and environmentally friendly catalysts for industrial purposes. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers within the Department of Chemistry created hollow cube-based frameworks from polyoxometalates (POMs) – complex compounds made from metal and oxygen atoms – which stick together like LEGO bricks meaning a whole range of well-defined architectures can be developed with great ease.

The molecular sensing aspects of this new material are related to the potassium and lithium ions, which sit loosely in cavities in the framework. These can be displaced by other positively charged ions such as transition metals or small organic molecules while at the same time leaving the framework intact.

These characteristics highlight some of the many potential uses and applications of POM frameworks, but their principle application is their use as catalysts – a molecule used to start or speed-up a chemical reaction making it more efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

Moving from lego to pasta with a short stop at the movies, we have MIT researchers describing how they and their team have found a way to ‘imprint’ computer chips by using a new electron-beam lithography process to encourage copolymers to self-assemble on the chip. (Currently, manufacturers use light lasers in a photolithographic process which is becoming less effective as chips grow ever smaller and light waves become too large to use.) From the news item on Nanowerk,

The new technique uses “copolymers” made of two different types of polymer. Berggren [Karl] compares a copolymer molecule to the characters played by Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin in the movie Midnight Run, a bounty hunter and a white-collar criminal who are handcuffed together but can’t stand each other. Ross [Caroline] prefers a homelier analogy: “You can think of it like a piece of spaghetti joined to a piece of tagliatelle,” she says. “These two chains don’t like to mix. So given the choice, all the spaghetti ends would go here, and all the tagliatelle ends would go there, but they can’t, because they’re joined together.” In their attempts to segregate themselves, the different types of polymer chain arrange themselves into predictable patterns. By varying the length of the chains, the proportions of the two polymers, and the shape and location of the silicon hitching posts, Ross, Berggren, and their colleagues were able to produce a wide range of patterns useful in circuit design.

ETA (March 18,2010): Dexter Johnson at Nanoclast continues with his his posts (maybe these will form a series?) about more accuracy in reporting, specifically the news item I’ve just highlighted. Check it out here.

To finish on a completely different note (pun intended), I have a link (courtesy of Dave Bruggeman of the Pasco Phronesis blog by way of the Science Cheerleader blog) to a website eponymously (not sure that’s the right term) named Do enjoy such titles as: I got Physics; Snel’s Law – Macarena Style!; and much, much more.

Tomorrow: I’m not sure if I’ll have time to do much more than link to it and point to some commentary but the UK’s Nanotechnologies Strategy has just been been released today.