The scientific century: securing our future prosperity is a report that was launched yesterday, March 9,2010, by the Royal Society (which is currently celebrating its 350th anniversary). I haven’t read it yet but Andrew Maynard at the 2020 Science blog provides a preliminary overview of the recommendations. From the Society’s report website page,
It distils two urgent messages. The first is the need to place science and innovation at the heart of the UK’s long-term strategy for economic growth. The second is the fierce competitive challenge we face from countries which are investing at a scale and speed that we may struggle to match.
You can download a copy of the full 70 odd page report here.
Not having read it, I can’t comment but I can look wistfully from an environment (Canada) where scientists appear to be largely indifferent to the notion of public outreach/education/engagement, developing policy statements and/or developing any kind of national vision for science.
While on their website, I noticed that the Royal Society is celebrating its 350th anniversary with a project (amongst many others) called Fulcrum/Writing a World, poetry in the London underground. Go here if you want to see the poems and accompanying commentaries by scientists responding to the work.
In January 2010, I mentioned there was a series of nanotechnology public debates in France which had been disrupted. I later (February 2010) noted a followup announcement of a report being published as an outcome for the debates and a call for more debates. Since the French are the only ones to get this agitated about nanotechnology, I’ve been curious as to why this is so. Thankfully, the folks at Je vote pour la science have a podcast interview (French language) with two Québec academics providing commentary as to possible reasons.
You can go here to get the podcasts or if your French isn’t up to it and you’re willing to deal with my wonky French skills, here’s my brief summary in English.
Two Québec academics, Sébastien Richard, PhD student at the Université de Montréal, and Celine Lafontaine, professor of sociology specializing in the cultural, social and symbolic aspects of technoscience at the Université de Montréal were interviewed. They noted that the French have a tradition of militancy and highly critical analysis. In addition, as far as the militant groups were concerned these debates/public engagement exercises were being held after the fact since nanotechnology products are already becoming prevalent. Also, Grenoble has become one of the biggest centres for nanotechnology work in Europe. All of this without any discussion beforehand. Finally, the debates were focused on smaller, more technical concerns rather than larger global issues such as, What are the effects on the environment?
When the academics were asked why this situation (concern/anger about nanotechnology) has not occurred in Québec, or Canada for that matter, I got confused. As far as I can tell, they felt that there’s just not enough nanotechnology or awareness of nanotechnology to spark any discussion. They did make mention of the ETC Group as one of the few activist (civil society) groups in Canada.
Lafontaine has a book, Nanotechnologies et Société, being published by Éditions Boréal in late March 2010 and Richard is one of her collaborators on the book.
A few comments I want to add: Canada has a National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) located in Edmonton, AB, and funded by the National Research Council (NRC) and the Province of Alberta. NINT is either the only or one of the very few such institutes which are considered a partnership by the NRC and the province where it is located. By contrast, Québec is the only province which supports a nanotechnology sector with specific and substantive money and provincial policies. (You can get more information at the NanoQuébec website.)
I have commented on titanium dioxide and its use in sunscreens previously (you can start here and follow subsequent links if you’re curious). Last year the Environmental Working Group (EWG, website here) came out with a report where they had analyzed all of the research on titanium dioxide (within certain parameters) and reluctantly come to the conclusion that its use in sunscreens was safe relative to the research accomplished to that time. Since then there have been some other studies which suggest there may be problems. These things are hard to assess if you don’t understand the parameters within which the research work was done. It takes a long time with lots of different ways of approaching the question before you can state confidently that something is safe or not and, in some cases, you’ll never be able to. According to Michael Berger (in an article on Nanowerk about nanotoxicology and carbon nanotubes [correction Mar.11.10: this should read as 'nanotoxicology and fullerenes']),
The cynics argue that it is impossible to fully explore the toxicological impact of every existing and future nanomaterial with its many millions of variants, so why bother with a few half-hearted and underfunded research projects. Rather, let’s wait until nanotechnology has its asbestos moment and some people drop dead – then we have something concrete to look into.
People who are taking a more thoughtful approach to the complexities of nanotoxicological research agree that most likely we never will have full scientific certainty about the environmental and health impact of nanomaterials. Today we don’t even know what the impact of most chemicals is, and that includes products we have been using for many years.
This has been a long of saying is that an Australian researcher, Dr. Amanda Barnard, has published a study in Nature Nano where she finds that certain sizes of titanium dioxide are more toxic than others. From the news item on Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC),
Dr Barnard found that the size and concentrations of nanoparticles that gave the best transparency and sun protection also gave the highest potential for production of free radicals.
“Where we have the highest sun-protection factor – and it’s pretty – it [the sunscreen] is also toxic, potentially,” she said.
“Ultimately we have to trade off. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.”
Dr Barnard found that only particles less than 13 nanometres in size would minimise free radical production while maximising transparency and sun protection.
But, she cautions against concluding that all particles under 13 nanometres in size would be free of potential risk.
“We only looked at free radical production and tiny particles like that could still be toxic for other reasons that still need to be tested,” she said.
She says further studies on the environmental impacts of nanoparticles in sunscreens are also required.
“All of these things wash off, when we’re swimming, and we wash them off and flush them down the sink,” Barnard says.
Presumably Barnard is concerned about water sources and about aquatic life and, as one should, calls for more research.
Tomorrow: I’ll point you to another UK report, this one about risk and trust.