Monthly Archives: April 2010

Weaver/Werth Band at Vancouver’s Capone Restaurant and Jazz Lounge

A friend of mine, Laura Werth, will be performing at Capones Restaurant and Jazz Lounge this weekend, at 7:30 p.m. April 30 and May 1, 2010. Here’s a description of Laura and the Weaver/Werth Band,

Rob Weaver’s deceptively lazy keyboard stylings along with vocalist Laura Werth’s smoky renditions of original and standard jazz tunes take audiences on a tour that features bebop, swing, Afro-Cuban, jazz rock, funk, and hip hop beats. Weaver and Werth are joined by Rick Kilburn, bass player and music producer, who has provided the driving, downbeat for jazz legends such as Dave Brubeck, Mose Allison, and Flora Purim, as well as local Vancouver legends, Dee Daniels and Kenny Coleman. David Say, saxophone player—tenor, soprano, and baritone—who has accompanied everyone from Michael Bublé to Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation to Hard Rubber Orchestra to the Supremes adds his sweet, sexy, and sassy tones. This foursome, together for 15 years, have attracted a revolving cast of stellar musicians including drummer Dan Brubeck who has appeared on BBC jazz programmes, been nominated for a Grammy award, and toured the international jazz circuit for more than two decades with his unique drumming style and odd time-signatures. (More from Werth, Weaver, and the band can be heard on Werth’s Watchin’ the World go by CD.) Coupling cool rhythms to fiery vibes, the Weaver/Werth Band delivers quintessential West Coast jazz.

The band’s configuration does change but Rob and Laura are constants. Reservations are required. (Full disclosure: I wrote the band description.)

Nanotechnology and the Council of Canadian Academies assessment report

I started discussing the Council of Canadian Academies and its mid-term assessment report (Review of the Council of Canadian Academies; Report from the External Evaluation Panel 2010) yesterday and will finish today with my thoughts on the assessment of the Council’s nanotechnology report and its impact.

Titled Small is Different: A Science Perspective of the Regulatory Challenges on the Nanoscale (2008), the Council’s report is one of the best I’ve read. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants an introduction to some of the issues (and was much struck by its omission from the list of suggested nanotechnology readings that Peter Julian [Canadian MP] offered in part 2 of his interview).  Interestingly, the Council’s nanotechnology report is Case Study No. 3 in the mid-term expert panel assessment report’s Annex 6 (p. 33 in the print version and p. 37 in PDF).

Many respondents were concerned that Health Canada has made no response to, or use of, this report. However, Health Canada respondents were highly enthusiastic about the assessment and the ways in which it is being used to inform the department’s many – albeit still entirely internal – regulatory development activities: “We’ve all read it and used it. The fact that we haven’t responded to the outside is actually a reflection of how busy we’ve been responding to the file on the inside!” [emphases mine]

The report has been particularly valuable in providing a framework to bring together Health Canada’s five – very different – regulatory regimes to identify a common approach and priorities. The sponsor believes the report’s findings have been well-incorporated into its draft working definition of nanomaterials, [emphasis mine] its work with Canadian and international standards agencies, its development of a regulatory framework to address shorter- and longer-term needs, and its creation of a research agenda to aid the development of the science needed to underpin the regulation of nanomaterials in Canada.

I think the next time somebody confronts me as to why I haven’t responded externally to some notice (e.g., paid my strata fees), I’ll assure them that I’ve been ‘responding on the inside’. (Sometimes I cannot resist the low-hanging fruit and I just have to take a bite.)

As for the second paragraph where they claim that Health Canada has incorporated suggestions from the report for its nanomaterials definition, that’s all well and good but the thinking is changing and Health Canada doesn’t seem to be responding (or to even be aware of the fact). Take a look at the proposed definition in the current draft bill before the US Senate where in addition to size, they mention shape, reactivity, and more as compared the Health Canada 1 to 100 nm. size definition. (See details in this posting from earlier in the week where I compare the proposed US and Canadian definitions.)

Additionally, I think they need to find ways to measure impact that are quantitative as well as this qualitative approach, which itself needs to be revised. Quantitative measures could include the numbers of reports disseminated in print and online, social networking efforts (if any), number of times reports are mentioned in the media, etc. They may also want to limit case studies in future reports so they can provide more depth. The comment about the ‘internal’ impact could have been described at more length. How have the five different Health Canada regulatory regimes come together? Has something substantive occurred?

Finally, it’s hard to know if the Julian’s failure to mention the council’s report in his list of nanotechnology readings is a simple failure of memory or a reflection of the Council’s “invisibility”. I’m inclined to believe that it’s the latter.

Stephen Fry, Cambridge University, and nanotechnology

Courtesy of Nanowerk, I found a new introductory video, Introduction to the strange new world of nanoscience, that Stephen Fry (actor) narrates on behalf of Cambridge University. Providing a very engaging and delightful introduction to nanotechnology, it also illustrates something I was discussing in one of my postings yesterday. The notion that the adoption of any science or technology is inevitable and not to be questioned is in full display. Since the video’s purpose is to introduce (“sell’) nanotechnology I have no quibble with the video itself, my doubts centre on the fact that the nanotechnology discussion is couched in terms of pro or con with no questioning of the basic premise, i.e., should we do this just because we can and how do we decide one way or the other?

Tim Harper on his TNT blog, which is located on his Cientifica website, offers a possible answer in one of his recent postings,

That’s all there is to technology diffusion, whether GM, nanotech or anything else. It is the ultimate form of democracy, because it is us, the people, who eventually get to choose whether a technology is used or not, not politicians, companies or single issue campaign groups.

Leaving aside the concept of marketplace democracy to shift gears, Harper is making the assumption that nothing catastrophic will occur because according to Harper’s posting on the topic,

After ten years of nanotech scare stories I feel that we have a fairly balanced resreach [sic] agenda, with plenty of good science being backed up by excellent toxicology and risk management studies.

It should be noted that Harper is responding from the perspective of someone located in the UK where there has been far more public discussion and interest in the possible risks associated with nanotechnology than there has been in either Canada or the US.

I have to agree with Harper in some degree with his thesis that the marketplace is where a new technology or innovation fails or succeeds and is where democracy  prevails since in the marketplace, the sloganeering and mud-slinging from all sides becomes irrelevant as technology is adopted or it isn’t.

However, it might be time to consider some alternatives to marketplace democracy because, unlike Harper, I’m not quite so confident about the toxicology and risk management studies undertaken so far and the stakes are much higher than they have been in the past. I realize that it’ s impossible to have 100% confidence and I find many of nanotechnology’s possible benefits quite compelling so I’m willing go along with it to a point. I just don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we are juggling many possibilities in a very dynamic environment and using methods and models that worked in times past is rather like showing up to a modern battle zone dressed in medieval armour.

Getting back to the Cambridge University video, do go and watch it on the Nanowerk site. It is fun and very informative and approximately 17 mins. I noticed that they reused part of their Nokia morph animation (last mentioned on this blog here) and offered some thoughts from Professor Mark Welland, the team leader on that project. Interestingly, Welland was talking about yet another possibility. (Sometimes I think nano goes too far!) He was suggesting that we could have chips/devices in our brains that would allow us to think about phoning someone and an immediate connection would be made to that person. Bluntly—no. Just think what would happen if the marketers got access and I don’t even want to think what a person who suffers psychotic breaks (i.e., hearing voices) would do with even more input. Welland starts to talk at the 11 minute mark (I think). For an alternative take on the video and more details, visit Dexter Johnson’s blog, Nanoclast, for this posting. Hint, he likes the idea of a phone in the brain much better than I do.

You can also find the video here on the Cambridge University site where you’ll also find out it was funded by the European Commission for a nanotechnology dialogue project called NanoYou.

Science advice and technology assessment in Canada?

Thank you to the folks at The Black Hole blog for their very incisive post about the recent (released April 28, 2010) mid-term assessment report of the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA). Here’s a brief excerpt from what The Black Hole posting,

Created in 2005, the Council of Canadian Academies is a not-for-profit corporation that supports science-based, expert assessments to inform public policy development in Canada. It was created with $30 million seed funding from Government which expires in 2015 and just underwent its midterm assessment last week. The report was generally positive and indeed to the casual reader it would appear the CCA has a lot to be proud of and not much to worry about. Digging a little deeper though, one gets the feeling that the CCA is facing a critical juncture in its existence and faces the very real possibility of becoming a heck of a lot less effective in 2015.

The blogger, Dave, goes on to explain that the concerns arise from the CCA’s “lack of visibility” and its “dependence on government sponsors” (I assume this means funding). Given that the CCA is the only agency that provides comprehensive science advice for Canada, this could mean the loss of a very singular resource will  in the foreseeable future.

In looking at the report very briefly I too noticed a few things that rang warning bells. From the report (p. 9 in print version, p. 13 in PDF),

Recognizing that a great deal of Canada’s intellectual capital lies within the country’s three Academies – the RSC: The Academies of Arts, Humanities and Sciences of Canada, the Canadian Academy of Engineering, and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences – these organizations were designated the founding members of the Council. The relationship between the Council and its three Member Academies, however, has not [emphases mine] been as productive or cooperative as it could be.

As far as I’m concerned there’s no chance for survival if the CCA can’t develop a good working relationship with its academies. Further, this working relationship will determine the success of the CCA’s efforts to address its “invisibility.” In the report there are three recommendations for communication efforts to make the CCA more visible (p. 13 in print version, p. 16  in PDF),

RECOMMENDATIONS

14. The Board should lead the development of a new communications strategy that builds on the Council’s considerable assets: its reputation, quality product, enthusiastic panellists and scientific advisors, and its key partners, the Academies.

15. The Council should empower and support this broadened scope of voices to engage with a wide range of key stakeholders who could be identifying topics and/or making use of their findings.

16. The Council should continue to seek opportunities to work with the Academies to contribute to international science advisory bodies.

All of there recommendations are reliant on support from the member academies.

On another note, I find the complete and utter of lack interest in communication efforts to the general public fascinating (I’ve skimmed through the report and have to spot anything that concretely addresses it). They are unrelentingly focused on experts and policy makers. I understand that public outreach is not part of the official mandate but the CCA does release reports to the media and arguably they would like their reports to have some impact on the larger society. They might even be interested in public support when the next federal budget that will have an impact on their activities is due or if they try to increase revenue streams to include something other than government funding. At the very least, they should acknowledge the presence of a much larger world around them and their stakeholders (how do they define stakeholders, anyway? aren’t Canadian citizens stakeholders?).

This indifference to the Canadian citizenry contrasts mightily with the approach Richard Sclove (mentioned in this posting earlier today) is trying to implement with regard to technology assessment in the US. In fact, the indifference contrasts with material I see that comes from the US, the UK, and from the European Community.

Reinventing technology assessment or why should I start thinking about how to make better decisions about science and technology?

I think a better title for this posting might have been Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (old movie title) as it’s got the right rhythm unfortunately the sentiment isn’t quite right (although quite close in some places) for this discussion about technology assessment along with the notion of unimpeded science ‘progress’.

Yesterday April 28, 2010, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) held an event to launch a new report, Reinventing Technology Assessment for the 21st Century by Richard Sclove. (It’s the second time that PEN has not offered a live webcast of one of these events and I hope this is due to technical difficulties rather than financial.) The description for the event and link to the report and the speaker’s presentation can be found here.

I’m going to briefly discuss Richard Sclove’s  presentation slides  (and will see the webcast, which hopefully has been made, when it’s posted in a few weeks).  He offers a brief history of technology assessment (TA) in the US (an office was opened in 1972 and closed in 1995) and brief description of what it was supposed to accomplish. From the presentation,

Technology Assessment

Enhances societal understanding
of the broad implications of
science and technology, and
improves decision-making.

The presenter, Richard Sclove, also notes that there are now 18 TA agencies in Europe and makes the case that TA is important. What I found particularly interesting in the presentation is his focus on participatory TA. He’s not interested in simply reinstating the TA office in the US but in broadening engagement in the technology assessment process which is why his presentation and report use the word reinvention.

The suggestion for participation in TA is certainly in line with the current interest in involving citizens in all kinds of work, e.g. citizen scientists (an earlier blog posting) and citizen archivists (earlier blog posting) where volunteers work along aside professionals on certain projects. There is also a similarity to public engagement where experts and citizens meet to discuss emerging technology with the intent that the experts will take these meetings into account when decisionmaking. Sclove’s particular project (he is launching a project based on his report) seems to integrate the two approaches by formalizing the public engagement aspect beyond a series of meetings and/or workshops into a working relationship such as one between a citizen scientist and a professional scientist.

I find Sclove’s concept appealing and was made to reconsider it after reading Andrew Maynard’s (over at his 2020 Science blog) thoughts about the concept of TA. From Andrew’s posting,

It [TA] is based on the assumption that, if only we can get some insight into where a particular technology innovation is going and what the broader social and economic consequences might be, we should be able to tweak the system to increase the benefits and decrease the downsides.

As an idea, it’s an attractive one. Having the foresight to identify potential hurdles to progress ahead of time and make decisions that help overcome them at an early stage makes sound sense. If businesses wants to develop products that are sustainable over long periods, governments want to craft policies that have long-reaching positive consequences and citizens want to support actions that will benefit them and their children, any intelligence on the potential benefits and pitfalls associated with a new technology is invaluable to informed decision-making.

The trouble is, making sense of a complex future where technology, social issues, politics, economics and sheer human irrationality collide, is anything but straight forward.

It’s the dynamic nature of an emerging technology, as he points out, that makes all of the decisionmaking and regulatory development so very challenging. Andrew also contrasts the traditional TA concepts with the ideas in a book (Bad Ideas? An arresting history of our inventions) by Robert Winston who cautions against society’s blind assumption that the adoption of an emerging science or technology is both inevitable and good. You can certainly see that attitude in some of the information about nanotechnology. Even Andrew Schneider (earlier posting discussing the contretemps) who has roundly criticized the National Nanotechnology Initiative’s efforts assumes that nanotechnology’s adoption is inevitable.

Do read the posting and the comments. Richard Sclove dropped in and I offer this one excerpt from his comment,

Early on your mention that technology assessment (TA) “is based on the assumption that, if only we can get some insight into where a particular technology innovation is going . . . we should be able to tweak the system to increase the benefits and decrease the downsides.” As written, that is exactly right. Although if you read my report carefully, you’ll see that I’m interested in seeing if we can push the capability of TA (both participatory and not) to move beyond only studying one “particular technology” at a time to also considering the synergistic interactions among complexes of (seemingly unrelated) techs.

I noticed that nowhere in Sclove’s full comment does he address the much thornier issue of whether we must adopt an emerging science or technology simply because we can. You can learn more about Sclove’s project, the Expert & Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST) project here. I notice the founding partners include PEN and the Science Cheerleader which has been mentioned here from time to time (notably in the posting about citizen scientists).

NANO Magazine’s April 2010 issue country focus: Canada

I’m a little late to the party but the month isn’t over yet so, today I’m going to focus on Nano Magazine‘s April 2010 issue or more specifically their article about Canada and it’s nanotechnology scene. The magazine (available both in print and online) has selected Canada for its country focus this issue. From the April 2010, issue no. 17 editorial,

The featured country in this issue is Canada, notable for its well funded facilities and research that is aggressively focused on industrial applications. Although having no unifying national nanotechnology initiative, there are many extremely well-funded organisations with world class facilities that are undertaking important nano-related research. Ten of these centres are highlighted, along with a new network that will research into innovative plastics and manufacturing processes, and added value can be gained in this field – with the economic future benefit for Canada firmly in mind!

It’s always an eye-opening experience to see yourself as others see you. I had no idea Canadian research was “aggressively focused on industrial applications.” My view as a Canadian who can only see it from the inside reveals a scattered landscape with a few pockets of concentrated effort. It’s very difficult to obtain a national perspective as communication from the various pockets is occasional, hard to understand and/or interpret at times, and not easily accessible (some of these Canadian nanotechnology groups (in government agencies, research facilities, civil society groups, etc.) seem downright secretive.

As for the ‘aggressive focus on industrial applications’ by Canadians, I found it interesting and an observation I could not have made for two reasons. The first I’ve already noted (difficulty of obtaining the appropriate perspective from the inside) and, secondly, it seems to me that the pursuit of industrial applications is a global obsession and not confined to the field of nanotechnology, as well, I’m not able to establish a basepoint for comparison so the comment was quite a revelation. Still, it should be noted that Nano Magazine itself seems to have a very strong bias towards commercialization and business interests.

The editorial comment about “not have a unifying national nanotechnology initiative” I can heartily second, although the phrase brings the US National Nanotechnology Initiative strongly to mind where I think a plan (any kind of plan) would do just as well.

The article written by Fraser Shand and titled Innovation finds new energy in Western Canada provides a bit of word play that only a Canadian or someone who knows the province of Alberta, which has substantive oil reserves albeit in the sands, would be able to appreciate. Kudos to whoever came up with the title. Very well done!

I have to admit to being a bit puzzled here as I’m not sure if Shand’s article is the sole article about the Canadian nanotechnology scene  (it profiles only the province of Alberta) or if there are other articles profiling pockets of nanotechnology research present, largely in Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia with smaller pockets in other provinces. I apologize for giving short shrift to six provinces but, as I’ve noted, information is difficult to come by and most of the information I can obtain is from the four provinces mentioned.

From the article,

Steeped in a pioneering spirit and enriched by ingenuity, one of the most exciting, modern day outposts on the nanotechnology frontier is located on the prairies of Western Canada. The province of Alberta is home to some of Canada’s most significant nanotechnology assets and has quickly become a world-destination for nanotechnology research, product development and commercialization.

While Alberta is rooted in the traditional resource sectors of energy, agriculture and forestry, it is dedicated to innovation. The Government of Alberta launched its nanotechnology strategy in 2007, committing $130 million to growth and development over five years. It also created a dedicated team.

Shand goes on to note Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT), located in Edmonton, Alberta’s capital city, and its role in attracting world class researchers (see News Flash below). Other than the brief mention of a federal institution, the focus remains unrelentingly on Alberta and this is surprising since the title misled me into believing that the article would concern itself with Western Canada, which arguably includes the prairie provinces (Manitoba and Saskatchewan) and British Columbia.

Meanwhile, the editorial led me to believe that I would find a national perspective with mention of 10 research centres somewhere in the April 2010 issue. If they are hiding part of the issue, I wish they’d note that somewhere easily visible (front page?) on their website and clarify the situation.

If this is the magazine’s full profile of the Canadian nanotechnology scene, they’ve either come to the conclusion that the only worthwhile work is being done in Alberta (I’m making an inference) or they found the process of gathering information about the other nanotechnology research pockets so onerous that they simply ignored them in favour of pulling a coherent article together.

I have been viewing the site on a regular basis since I heard about the April 2010 issue and this is the only time I’ve seen an article about Canada made available. They seem to have a policy of rotating the articles they make available for free access.

One other thing, a Nanotechnology Asset Map of Alberta is going to be fully accessible sometime in May 2010. I gather some of the folks from the now defunct, Nanotech BC organization advised the folks at nanoAlberta on developing the tool after the successful BC Nanotechnology Asset Map was printed in 2008 (?). I’m pleased to see the Alberta map is online which will make updating a much easier task and it gives a very handy visual representation that is difficult to achieve with print. You can see Alberta’s beta version at nanoAlberta. Scroll down and look to the left of the screen and at the sidebar for a link to the asset map.

I have to give props to the people in the province of Alberta who have supported nanotechnology research and commercialization efforts tirelessly. They enticed the federal government into building NINT in Edmonton by offering to pay a substantive percentage of the costs and have since created several centres for commercialization and additional research as noted in Shand’s article. Bravo!

News Flash: I just (in the last five minutes, i.e., 11:05 am PT) received this notice about the University of Alberta and nanotechnology. From the Eureka Alert notice,

A University of Alberta-led research team has taken a major step forward in understanding how T cells are activated in the course of an immune response by combining nanotechnology and cell biology. T cells are the all important trigger that starts the human body’s response to infection.

Christopher Cairo and his team are studying how one critical trigger for the body’s T cell response is switched on. Cairo looked at the molecule known as CD45 and its function in T cells. The activation of CD45 is part of a chain of events that allows the body to produce T cells that target an infection and, just as importantly, shut down overactive T cells that could lead to damage.

Cairo and crew are working on a national/international team that includes: “mathematician Dan Coombs (University of British Columbia), biochemist Jon Morrow (Yale University Medical School) and biophysicist David Golan (Harvard Medical School).” Their paper is being published in the April issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Now back to my regular programming: I should also mention Nano Québec which I believe was the first provincial organization founded  in Canada, circa 2005, to support nanotechnology research and commercialization efforts. French language site / English language site

NaNO Ontario has recently organized itself as the Nanotechnology Network of Ontario.

Unfortunately, Nanotech BC no longer exists.

If you know of any other provincial nanotechnology organizations, please do let me know.

Comparing nanomaterials definitions: US and Canada

In light of yesterday’s (April 26, 2010) posting about Health Canada and their nanomaterials definition, Andrew Maynard’s April 23, 2010 post at 2020 Science (blog) is quite timely. Andrew has some details about new nanomaterials definitions being proposed in the both the US Senate and House of Representatives so that their Toxic Substances Control Act can be amended. From Andrew’s posting, an excerpt about the proposed House bill,

The House draft document is a little more explicit. It recommends amending section 3(2) of the original act with:

“(C) For purposes of this Act, such term may include more than 1 form of a substance with a particular molecular identity as described in sub-paragraph (A) if the Administrator has determined such forms to be different substances, based on variations in the substance characteristics. New forms of existing chemical substances so determined shall be considered new chemical substances.” (page 6)

with the clarification that

“The term ‘substance characteristic’ means, with respect to a particular chemical substance, the physical and chemical characteristics that may vary for such substance, and whose variation may bear on the toxicological properties of the chemical substance, including—

(A) chemical structure and composition

(B) size or size distribution

(C) shape

(D) surface structure

(E) reactivity; and

(F) other characteristics and properties that may bear on toxicological properties” (page 11)

Both the Senate bill and the House discussion document provide EPA with the authority to regulate any substance that presents a new or previously unrecognized risk to human health as a new substance. This is critical to ensuring the safety of engineered nanomaterials, where risk may depend on more than just the chemistry of the substance. But it also creates a framework for regulating any new material that presents a potential risk – whether it is a new chemical, a relatively simple nanomaterial, a more complex nanomaterial – possibly one that changes behavior in response to its environment, or a novel material that has yet to be invented. In other words, these provisions effectively future-proof the new regulation.

I prefer the definition in the draft House of Representatives bill to Health Canada’s because of its specificity and its future-oriented approach. Contrast their specificity with this from the Interim Policy Statement on Health Canada’s Working Definition for Nanomaterials:

Health Canada considers any manufactured product, material, substance, ingredient, device, system or structure to be nanomaterial if:

1. It is at or within the nanoscale in at least one spatial dimension, or;

2. It is smaller or larger than the nanoscale in all spatial dimensions and exhibits one or more nanoscale phenomena.

For the purposes of this definition:

* The term “nanoscale” means 1 to 100 nanometres, inclusive;

* The term “nanoscale phenomena” means properties of the product, material, substance, ingredient, device, system or structure which are attributable to its size [emphasis mine] and distinguishable from the chemical or physical properties of individual atoms, individual molecules and bulk material; and,

* The term “manufactured” includes engineering processes and control of matter and processes at the nanoscale.

You’ll notice the House of Representatives’ draft bill offers five elements to the description (chemical composition, size or size distribution [emphasis mine], shape, surface structure, reactivity, and other characteristics and properties that may bear on toxicological properties). So in the US they include elements that have been identified as possibly being a problem and leave the door open for future discovery.

The proposed legislation has another feature, Andrew notes that,

Both the Senate bill and the House discussion document provide EPA with the authority [emphasis mine] to regulate any substance that presents a new or previously unrecognized risk to human health as a new substance. This is critical to ensuring the safety of engineered nanomaterials, where risk may depend on more than just the chemistry of the substance. But it also creates a framework for regulating any new material that presents a potential risk – whether it is a new chemical, a relatively simple nanomaterial, a more complex nanomaterial – possibly one that changes behavior in response to its environment, or a novel material that has yet to be invented. In other words, these provisions effectively future-proof the new regulation.

As far as I can recall, Peter Julian’s (MP – NDP) tabled draft bill for nanotechnology regulation in Canada does not offer this kind of ‘future-proofing’ although it could be added if it is ever brought forward for debate in the House of Commons. Given the quantity of public and political discussion on nanotechnology (and science, in general) in Canada, I doubt any politician could offer those kinds of amendments to Julian’s proposed bill.

As for Canada’s proposed nanomaterials reporting plan/inventory/scheme, Health Canada’s proposed definition’s vagueness makes compliance difficult. Let me illustrate what I mean while I explain why I highlighted ‘size distribution’ in the House of Representatives draft bill by first discussing Michael Berger’s article on Nanowerk about environment, health and safety (EHS) research into the toxicological properties of nanomaterials. From Berger’s article,

” What we found in our work is that nanomaterials purchased from commercial sources may not be as well characterized as indicated by the manufacturer,” Vicki H. Grassian, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Iowa, tells Nanowerk. “For example, it might be stated that a certain nanoparticle is being sold as 30 nm in diameter and, although ’30 nm’ might be close to the average diameter, there is usually a range of particle sizes that can extend from as much as small as 5 nm to as large as 300 nm. [emphases mine]“

That’s size distribution and it reveals two problems with a reporting plan/inventory/scheme that uses a definition that sets the size within a set range. (Julian’s bill has the same problem although his range is 1 to 1000 nm.) First, what happens if you have something that’s 1001 nm? This inflexible and unswerving focus on size will frustrate the intent both of the reporting plan and of Julian’s proposed legislation. Second, how can a business supply the information being requested when manufacturers offer such a wide distribution of sizes in  products where a uniform size is claimed? Are businesses going to be asked to measure the nanomaterials? Two or three years or more after they received the products? [Aug.4.10 Note: Some grammatical changes made to this paragraph so it conveys my message more clearly.]

Then Berger’s article moves onto another issue,

Reporting their findings in a recent paper in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (“Commercially manufactured engineered nanomaterials for environmental and health studies: Important insights provided by independent characterization”), among other problems Grassian and first author Heaweon Park also discuss the issue of batch-to-batch variability during the production of nanoparticles and that some nanomaterials which were being sold as having spherical morphology could contain mixed morphologies such as spheres and rods [emphases mine].

That’s right, you may not be getting the same shape of nanoparticle in your batch. This variability should not pose a problem for the proposed reporting plan/inventory/scheme since shape is not mentioned in Health Canada’s definition but it could bear on toxicology issues which is why a plan/inventory/scheme is being proposed in the first place.

Interestingly, the only ‘public consultation’ meeting that Health Canada/Environment Canada has held appears to have taken place in 2007 with none since and none planned for the future (see my April 26, 2010 posting).

Apparently, 3000 stakeholders have been contacted and asked for responses. I do wonder if an organization like Nano Quebec has been contacted and counted not as a single stakeholder but as representing its membership numbers (e.g. 500 members = 500 stakeholders?) whatever they may be. There is, of course, a specific Health Canada website for this interim definition where anyone can offer comments. It takes time to write a submission and I’m not sure how much time anyone has to devote to it which is why meetings can be very effective for information gathering especially in a field like nanotechnology where the thinking changes so quickly. 2007 seems like a long time ago.

Finally, Dexter Johnson on his Nanoclast blog is offering more perspective on the recent Andrew Schneider/National Nanotechnology Initiative dust up. Yes, he gave me a shout out (and I’m chuffed) and he puts the issues together to provide a different perspective on journalistic reporting environment, health and safety issues as they relate to nanotechnology along with some of the issues associated with toxicology research.

Health Canada answers questions about a nanomaterials reporting plan/inventory and about its interim policy definition of nanomaterials; news flash: IBM & a plot to bomb their nanotech facility in Switzerland

I’ve been tracking down information about Canada’s manomaterials reporting plan/inventory/scheme since January 2009 when it was first announced publicly, i.e. somewhere other than a government report or government website. Here’s my most recent posting where I detail information found in a Feb. 2010 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) report. In my searches I also found a notice of a a request for comments (closing date: Aug. 31, 2010) about an Interim Policy Statement for Health Canada’s Working Definition for Nanomaterials . I gather this request for feedback/public consultation is being held prior to developing the ‘nanomaterials reporting plan’ for Canadian businesses to provide information about the nanomaterials in their products circa 2008.

The whole endeavour has been a bit puzzling so I emailed Health Canada with some questions which Christelle Legault, Media Relations Officer | Agente des relations avec les médias, Regulatory Communications and Media Relations Division | Division des communications réglementaires et des relations avec les médias, Public Affairs, Consultation and Communications Branch | Direction générale des affaires publiques, de la consultation et des communication, Health Canada | Santé Canada, very kindly answered. (Her business card must be very crowded.)

Q1 – Is information about this reporting plan/inventory/scheme publicly available other than in OECD documents? Where would the average Canadian be able to locate this info?

Plans to develop an information gathering initiative for nanomaterials were discussed as part of a previous multi-stakeholder workshop. Background information on this initiative is provided in the document entitled “Proposed Regulatory Framework for Nanomaterials under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999” available under “Nanomaterials” on Environment Canada’s New Substances Website at:

http://www.ec.gc.ca/subsnouvelles-newsubs

The New Substances Website is used to communicate information to stakeholders on the regulatory program for nanomaterials under the Canadian Environment Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999).

Q2 – When is the projected date for the proposed reporting plan/inventory/scheme to take place? Will it be 2011?

Information gathering initiatives for nanomaterials are currently under consideration by the Government. At this time, there are no confirmed timelines.

Q3 – How did you promote this ‘Interim statement’ consultation so there’d be some response?

The Policy Statement on Health Canada’s Working Definition for Nanomaterials was distributed to over 3,000 stakeholders in Canada and internationally via e-mail, as well as being posted on Health Canada’s website:

http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/sr-sr/consult/_2010/nanomater/index-eng.php

Q4 – Were you aware that your adopted definition for nanomaterials is not harmonious with the 2007 definition being used by Environment Canada where nano titanium dioxide (a very commonly used nanoparticle in many products) is explicitly excluded.

The New Substances Advisory Note that was published in 2007, entitled: Requirements for Nanomaterials under the New Substances Notification Regulations (Chemicals and Polymers), relates to existing legislation for nanomaterials under CEPA 1999. The Advisory Note does not define nanomaterials, rather it describes the requirements of existing legislation to notify new nanomaterials to the Government for assessment prior to import or manufacture.

Whereas, the Interim Policy Statement on Health Canada’s Working Definition for Nanomaterials is intended to provide guidance to stakeholders on the broad scope of what is considered a nanomaterial. The working definition establishes a working means of identifying nanomaterials that will support the administration of the various laws and regulations (including CEPA 1999) that the Government uses to regulate nanomaterials. The scope of the working definition is intended to be broad so that all Government legislative and regulatory programs are captured. In some cases, the scope of nanomaterials for specific regulatory programs may be narrower than that of Health Canada’s Working Definition.

Q5 – Are there plans for public outreach/dialogue/engagement events on the topic of nanomaterials and other nanotechnology issues?

HC will be providing feedback to stakeholders after the Interim Policy Statement consultation period is completed. Depending on the result of the consultation, HC will decide on the need to further engage the stakeholders.

Q6 – Is there going to be another multi-stakeholder meeting as there was in 2007, as per the OECD report?

There are currently no scheduled multi-stakeholder meeting concerning the Environment Canada-Health Canada nanomaterial regulatory program. However, the Government is committed to holding meaningful consultations with interested stakeholders as it further develops its nanomaterial regulatory program.

Q7 – If there will be another multi-stakholder meeting, do you have details about which civil society groups, academics, business interests, policy watchdogs, and other interested parties will be invited and when it will take place?

The consultation workshop held in 2007 had representation from a wide range of stakeholders including several industry associations and small and medium enterprises (SMEs), environmental and health NGOs as well as Canadian university researchers. Regulatory authorities from other jurisdictions and other Canadian federal government departments were also part of the consultative process. For future consultations, stakeholder participation will consist of similar representation and will also include other identified interested parties as nanotechnology activity in Canada increases.

Q8 – Is there a launch date (as opposed to the vague Spring 2010) for the proposed NanoPortal mentioned in the OECD report (no. 20, Feb. 2010) of the Working Party on Nanomaterials?

Health Canada’s NanoPortal is at the last stage of development. Health Canada is now working on the final details and will provide a launch date in the near future.

Thank you Ms. Legault for providing answers to my questions.

Plot to bomb IBM nanotech facility in Switzerland

There aren’t many details so I’m not sure how solid this information is but it seems that a small group of one woman and two men were arrested. April 15, 2010, in an apparent plot to bomb an IBM nanotech facility being built in Rueschlikon (near Zurich). You can read slightly more here. The news seems to have been broken just hours ago.

Science in the British election and CASE; memristor and artificial intelligence; The Secret in Their Eyes, an allegory for post-Junta Argentina?

I’ve been meaning to mention the upcoming (May 6, 2010) British election for the last while as I’ve seen notices of party manifestos that mention science (!) but it was one of Dave Bruggeman’s postings on Pasco Fhronesis that tipped the balance for me. From his posting,

CaSE [Campaign for Science and Engineering] sent each party leader a letter asking for their positions with respect to science and technology issues. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have responded so far (while the Conservative leader kept mum on science before the campaign, now it’s the Prime Minister who has yet to speak on it). Of the two letters, the Liberal Democrats have offered more detailed proposals than the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats have also addressed issues of specific interest to the U.K. scientific community to a much greater degree.

(These letters are in addition to the party manifestos which each mention science.) I strongly recommend the post as Bruggeman goes on to give a more detailed analysis and offer a few speculations.

The Liberal Democrats offer a more comprehensive statement but they are a third party who gained an unexpected burst of support after the first national debate. As anyone knows, the second debate (to be held around noon (PT) today) or something else for that matter could change all that.

I did look at the CaSE site which provides an impressive portfolio of materials related to this election on its home page. As for the organization’s mission, before getting to that you might find its history instructive,

CaSE was launched in March 2005, evolving out of its predecessor Save British Science [SBS]. …

SBS was founded in 1986, following the placement of an advertisement in The Times newspaper. The idea came from a small group of university scientists brought together by a common concern about the difficulties they were facing in obtaining the funds for first class research.

The original plan was simply to buy a half-page adverisement in The Times to make the point, and the request for funds was spread via friends and colleagues in other universities. The response was overwhelming. Within a few weeks about 1500 contributors, including over 100 Fellows of the Royal Society and most of the British Nobel prize winners, had sent more than twice the sum needed. The advertisement appeared on 13th January 1986, and the balance of the money raised was used to found the Society, taking as its name the title of the advertisement.

Now for their mission statement,

CaSE is now an established feature of the science and technology policy scene, supported among universities and the learned societies, and able to attract media attention. We are accepted by Government as an organisation able to speak for a wide section of the science and engineering community in a constructive but also critical and forceful manner. We are free to speak without the restraints felt by learned societies and similar bodies, and it is good for Government to know someone is watching closely.

I especially like the bit where they feel its “good for Government” to know someone is watching.

The folks at the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) are also providing information about the British election and science. As you’d expect it’s not nearly as comprehensive but, if you’re interested, you can check out the CSPC home page.

I haven’t had a chance to read the manifestos and other materials closely enough to be able to offer much comment. It is refreshing to see the issue mentioned by all the parties during the election as opposed to having science dismissed as a ’boutique issue’ as an assistant to my local (Canadian)l Member of Parliament described it to me.

Memristors and artificial intelligence

The memristor story has ‘legs’, as they say. This morning I found an in-depth story by Michael Berger on Nanowerk titled, Nanotechnology’s Road to Artificial Brains, where he interviews Dr. Wei Lu about his work with memristors and neural synapses (mentioned previously on this blog here). Coincidentally I received a comment yesterday from Blaise Mouttet about an article he’d posted on Google September 2009 titled, Memistors, Memristors, and the Rise of Strong Artificial Intelligence.

Berger’s story focuses on a specific piece of research and possible future applications. From the Nanowerk story,

If you think that building an artificial human brain is science fiction, you are probably right – for now. But don’t think for a moment that researchers are not working hard on laying the foundations for what is called neuromorphic engineering – a new interdisciplinary discipline that includes nanotechnologies and whose goal is to design artificial neural systems with physical architectures similar to biological nervous systems.

One of the key components of any neuromorphic effort is the design of artificial synapses. The human brain contains vastly more synapses than neurons – by a factor of about 10,000 – and therefore it is necessary to develop a nanoscale, low power, synapse-like device if scientists want to scale neuromorphic circuits towards the human brain level.

Berger goes on to explain how Lu’s work with memristors relates to this larger enterprise which is being pursued by many scientists around the world.

By contrast Mouttet offers an historical context for the work on memristors along with a precise technical explanation  and why it is applicable to work in artificial intelligence. From Mouttet’s essay,

… memristive systems integrate data storage and data processing capabilities in a single device which offers the potential to more closely emulate the capabilities of biological intelligence.

If you are interested in exploring further, I suggest starting with Mouttet’s article first as it lays the groundwork for better understanding memristors and also Berger’s story about artificial neural synapses.

The secret in their eyes (movie review)

I woke up at 6 am the other morning thinking about a movie I saw this last Sunday (April 18, 2010). That doesn’t often happen to me,  especially as I get more jaded with time but something about ‘The Secret in Their Eyes‘, the Argentinean movie that won this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film woke me up.

Before going further, a précis of the story: a retired man (in his late 50s?) is trying to write a novel based on a rape/homicide case that he investigated in the mid-1970s. He’s haunted by it and spends much of the movie calling back memories of both a case and a love he tried to bury. Writing his ‘novel’ compels him to reinvestigate the case (he was an investigator for the judge) and reestablish contact with the victim’s grief-stricken husband and with the woman he loved  who was his boss (the judge) and also from a more prestigious social class.

The movie offers some comedy although it can mostly be described as a thriller, a procedural, and a love story. It can also be seen as an allegory. The victim represents Argentina as a country. The criminal’s treatment (he gets rewarded— initially) represents how the military junta controlled Argentina after Juan Peron’s death in 1974. It seemed to me that much of this movie was an investigation about how people cope and recover (or don’t) from a hugely traumatic experience.

I don’t know much about Argentina and I have no Spanish language skills (other than recognizing an occasional word when it sounds like a French one). Consequently, this history is fairly sketchy and derived from secondary and tertiary sources. In the 1950s, Juan Peron (a former member of the military) led  a very repressive regime which was eventually pushed out of office. By the 1970s he was asked to return which he did. He died there in 1974 and sometime after a military Junta took control of the government. Amongst other measures, they kidnapped thousands of people (usually young and often students, teachers [the victim in the movie is a teacher], political activists/enemies, and countless others) and ‘disappeared’ them.

Much of the population tried to ignore or hide from what was going on. A  documentary released in the US  in 1985, Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, details the story of a group of middle-class women who are moved to protest, after years of trying to endure, when their own children are ‘disappeared’.

In the movie we see what happens when bullies take over control. The criminal gets rewarded, the investigator/writer is sent away for protection after a colleague becomes collateral damage, the judge’s family name protects her, and the grieving husband has to find his own way to deal with the situation.

The movie offers both a gothic twist towards the end and a very moving perspective on how one deals with the guilt for one’s complicity and for one’s survival.

ETA: (April 27, 2010) One final insight, the movie suggests that art/creative endeavours such as writing a novel (or making a movie?) can be a means for confession, redemption, and/or healing past wounds.

I think what makes the movie so good is the number of readings that are possible. You can take a look at some of what other reviewers had to say: Katherine Monk at the Vancouver Sun, Curtis Woloschuk at the Westender, and Ken Eisner at the Georgia Straight.

Kudos to the director and screen writer, Juan José Campanella and to the leads: Ricardo Darín (investigator/writer), Soledad Villamil (judge), Pablo Rago (husband), Javier Godino (criminal), Guillermo Francella (colleague who becomes collateral damage) and all of the other actor s in the company. Even the smallest role was beautifully realized.

One final thing, whoever translated and wrote the subtitles should get an award. I don’t know how the person did it but the use of language is brilliant. I’ve never before seen subtitles that managed to convey the flavour of the verbal exchanges taking place on screen.

I liked the movie, eh?

Measuring professional and national scientific achievements; Canadian science policy conferences

I’m going to start with an excellent study about publication bias in science papers and careerism that I stumbled across this morning on physorg.com (from the news item),

Dr [Daniele] Fanelli [University of Edinburgh] analysed over 1300 papers that declared to have tested a hypothesis in all disciplines, from physics to sociology, the principal author of which was based in a U.S. state. Using data from the National Science Foundation, he then verified whether the papers’ conclusions were linked to the states’ productivity, measured by the number of papers published on average by each academic.

Findings show that papers whose authors were based in more “productive” states were more likely to support the tested hypothesis, independent of discipline and funding availability. This suggests that scientists working in more competitive and productive environments are more likely to make their results look “positive”. It remains to be established whether they do this by simply writing the papers differently or by tweaking and selecting their data.

I was happy to find out that Fanelli’s paper has been published by the PLoS [Public Library of Science] ONE , an open access journal. From the paper [numbers in square brackets are citations found at the end of the published paper],

Quantitative studies have repeatedly shown that financial interests can influence the outcome of biomedical research [27], [28] but they appear to have neglected the much more widespread conflict of interest created by scientists’ need to publish. Yet, fears that the professionalization of research might compromise its objectivity and integrity had been expressed already in the 19th century [29]. Since then, the competitiveness and precariousness of scientific careers have increased [30], and evidence that this might encourage misconduct has accumulated. Scientists in focus groups suggested that the need to compete in academia is a threat to scientific integrity [1], and those guilty of scientific misconduct often invoke excessive pressures to produce as a partial justification for their actions [31]. Surveys suggest that competitive research environments decrease the likelihood to follow scientific ideals [32] and increase the likelihood to witness scientific misconduct [33] (but see [34]). However, no direct, quantitative study has verified the connection between pressures to publish and bias in the scientific literature, so the existence and gravity of the problem are still a matter of speculation and debate [35].

Fanelli goes on to describe his research methods and how he came to his conclusion that the pressure to publish may have a significant impact on ‘scientific objectivity’.

This paper provides an interesting counterpoint to a discussion about science metrics or bibliometrics taking place on (the journal) Nature’s website here. It was stimulated by Judith Lane’s recent article titled, Let’s Make Science Metrics More Scientific. The article is open access and comments are invited. From the article [numbers in square brackets refer to citations found at the end of the article],

Measuring and assessing academic performance is now a fact of scientific life. Decisions ranging from tenure to the ranking and funding of universities depend on metrics. Yet current systems of measurement are inadequate. Widely used metrics, from the newly-fashionable Hirsch index to the 50-year-old citation index, are of limited use [1]. Their well-known flaws include favouring older researchers, capturing few aspects of scientists’ jobs and lumping together verified and discredited science. Many funding agencies use these metrics to evaluate institutional performance, compounding the problems [2]. Existing metrics do not capture the full range of activities that support and transmit scientific ideas, which can be as varied as mentoring, blogging or creating industrial prototypes.

The range of comments is quite interesting, I was particularly taken by something Martin Fenner said,

Science metrics are not only important for evaluating scientific output, they are also great discovery tools, and this may indeed be their more important use. Traditional ways of discovering science (e.g. keyword searches in bibliographic databases) are increasingly superseded by non-traditional approaches that use social networking tools for awareness, evaluations and popularity measurements of research findings.

(Fenner’s blog along with more of his comments about science metrics can be found here. If this link doesn’t work, you can get to Fenner’s blog by going to Lane’s Nature article and finding him in the comments section.)

There are a number of issues here: how do we measure science work (citations in other papers?) as well as how do we define the impact of science work (do we use social networks?) which brings the question to: how do we measure the impact when we’re talking about a social network?

Now, I’m going to add timeline as an issue. Over what period of time are we measuring the impact? I ask the question because of the memristor story.  Dr. Leon Chua wrote a paper in 1971 that, apparently, didn’t receive all that much attention at the time but was cited in a 2008 paper which received widespread attention. Meanwhile, Chua had continued to theorize about memristors in a 2003 paper that received so little attention that Chua abandoned plans to write part 2. Since the recent burst of renewed interest in the memristor and his 2003 paper, Chua has decided to follow up with part 2, hopefully some time in 2011. (as per this April 13, 2010 posting) There’s one more piece to the puzzle: an earlier paper by F. Argall. From Blaise Mouttet’s April 5, 2010 comment here on this blog,

In addition HP’s papers have ignored some basic research in TiO2 multi-state resistance switching from the 1960’s which disclose identical results. See F. Argall, “Switching Phenomena in Titanium Oxide thin Films,” Solid State Electronics, 1968.
http://pdf.com.ru/a/ky1300.pdf

[ETA: April 22, 2010 Blaise Mouttet has provided a link to an article  which provides more historical insight into the memristor story. http://knol.google.com/k/memistors-memristors-and-the-rise-of-strong-artificial-intelligence#

How do you measure or even track  all of that? Shy of some science writer taking the time to pursue the story and write a nonfiction book about it.

I'm not counselling that the process be abandoned but since it seems that the people are revisiting the issues, it's an opportune time to get all the questions on the table.

As for its importance, this process of trying to establish better and new science metrics may seem irrelevant to most people but it has a much larger impact than even the participants appear to realize. Governments measure their scientific progress by touting the number of papers their scientists have produced amongst other measures such as  patents. Measuring the number of published papers has an impact on how governments want to be perceived internationally and within their own borders. Take for example something which has both international and national impact, the recent US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) report to the President's Council of Science and Technology Advisors (PCAST). The NNI used the number of papers published as a way of measuring the US's possibly eroding leadership in the field. (China published about 5000 while the US published about 3000.)

I don't have much more to say other than I hope to see some new metrics.

Canadian science policy conferences

We have two such conferences and both are two years old in 2010. The first one is being held in Gatineau, Québec, May 12 - 14, 2010. Called Public Science  in Canada: Strengthening Science and Policy to Protect Canadians [ed. note: protecting us from what?], the target audience for the conference seems to be government employees. David Suzuki (tv host, scientist, evironmentalist, author, etc.) and Preston Manning (ex-politico) will be co-presenting a keynote address titled: Speaking Science to Power.

The second conference takes place in Montréal, Québec, Oct. 20-22, 2010. It’s being produced by the Canadian Science Policy Centre. Other than a notice on the home page, there’s not much information about their upcoming conference yet.

I did note that Adam Holbrook (aka J. Adam Holbrook) is both speaking at the May conference and is an advisory committee member for the folks who are organizing the October conference. At the May conference, he will be participating in a session titled: Fostering innovation: the role of public S&T. Holbrook is a local (to me) professor as he works at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada.

That’s all of for today.