Tag Archives: Alok Jha

UK’s Guardian newspaper hosts panel discussion: Should we use nanotechnology to feed ourselves?

This can be a short one. Should you happen to be in London, UK on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2012, you can join in a panel discussion to be held in the Guardian’s offices (registration required). Here’s more from a Sept. 22, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

Global society faces a number of stark choices regarding how we produce and consume food. Quite simply, current practices are not sustainable for the growing global population and trends observed in emerging economies of adopting a consumer-heavy Western lifestyle. We need to change.

This panel discussion, on Wednesday, October 9, 2013 at 6 pm, chaired by The Guardian’s Science and Environment Correspondent, Alok Jha, will discuss the contribution nanotechnologies can make to this, and the potential benefits and risks that go hand-in-hand.

Full details can be found here on the event registration page on the Guardian website,

The Guardian, in association with the Nanopinion Project, are delighted to offer readers the chance to attend an evening seminar on Wednesday 9 October, held at the Guardian offices in London.

There will be a panel discussion, chaired by the Guardian’s Science and Environment Correspondent, Alok Jha, to consider the contribution nanotechnologies can make to food production and security, and the potential benefits and risks that go hand-in-hand.

The discussion will reflect on the societal impacts that new technology solutions may have and will include representatives from industry, academia, NGOs and government agencies.

We will be discussing:

• Where are nanotechnologies are being used in the food chain?

• What can we expect in the future?

• What scenarios are likely from using or not using nanotechnologies?

• What are the alternatives?

• How are things different around the globe?

• What are the impacts of different nanomaterials on the environment?

• What about consumer confidence – who has looked at this?

The discussion will then be followed by a Q&A where delegates will have the opportunity to gain further insight from our panel of experts. The seminar will be reported through the Guardian’s online channels to encourage continued discussion and awareness of the key issues among the broader public.

Simply register your details below and you could win one of 20 places to this stimulating event.

Good luck and for those who can’t be bothered to scroll up,  here’s the registration page again. One final thought, it would be nice to know who their experts will be.

Opening it all up (open software, Nature, and Naked Science)

I’m coming back to the ‘open access’ well this week since there’ve been a few new developments since my massive May 28, 2012 posting on the topic.

A June 5, 2012 posting by Glyn Moody at the Techdirt website brought yet another aspect of ‘open access’ to my attention,

Computers need software, and some of that software will be specially written or adapted from existing code to meet the particular needs of the scientists’ work. This makes computer software a vital component of the scientific process. It also means that being able to check that code for errors is as important as being able to check the rest of the experiment’s methodology. And yet very rarely can other scientists do that, because the code employed is not made available.

That’s right,  there’s open access scientific software.

Meanwhile over at the Guardian newspaper website, Paul Campbell, Nature journal’s editor-in-chief,  notes that open access to research is inevitable in a June 8, 2012 article by Alok Jha,

Open access to scientific research articles will “happen in the long run”, according to the editor-in-chief of Nature, one of the world’s premier scientific journals.

Philip Campbell said that the experience for readers and researchers of having research freely available is “very compelling”. But other academic publishers said that any large-scale transition to making research freely available had to take into account the value and investments they added to the scientific process.

“My personal belief is that that’s what’s going to happen in the long run,” said Campbell. However, he added that the case for open access was stronger for some disciplines, such as climate research, than others.

Campbell was speaking at a briefing hosted by the Science Media Centre.  Interestingly, ScienceOnline Vancouver’s upcoming (June 12, 2012, 6:30 pm mingling starts, 7-9 pm PDT for the panel discussion) meeting about open access (titled, Naked Science; Excuse me: your science is showing) features a speaker from Canada’s Science Media Centre (from the event page),

  1. Heather Piwowar is a postdoc with Duke University and the Dept of Zoology at UBC.  She’s a researcher on the NSF-funded DataONE and Dryad projects, studying data.  Specifically, how, when, and why do scientists publicly archive the datasets they collect?  When do they reuse the data of others?  What related policies and tools would help facilitate more efficient and effective use of data resources?  Heather is also a co-founder of total-impact, a web application that reveals traditional and non-traditional impact metrics of scholarly articles, datasets, software, slides, and blog posts.
  2. Heather Morrison is a Vancouver-based, well-known international open access advocate and practitioner of open scholarship, through her blogs The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics http://poeticeconomics.blogspot.com and her dissertation-blog http://pages.cmns.sfu.ca/heather-morrison/
  3. Lesley Evans Ogden is a freelance science journalist and the Vancouver media officer for the Science Media Centre of Canada. In the capacity of freelance journalist, she is a contributing science writer at Natural History magazine, and has written for a variety of publications including YES Mag, Scientific American (online), The Guardian, Canadian Running, and Bioscience. She has a PhD in wildlife ecology, and spent more than a decade slogging through mud and climbing mountains to study the breeding and winter ecology of migratory birds. She is also an alumni of the Science Communications program at the Banff Centre. (She will be speaking in the capacity of freelance journalist).
  4. Joy Kirchner is the Scholarly Communications Coordinator at University of British Columbia where she heads the University’s developing Copyright office in addition to the Scholarly Communications office based in the Library. Her role involves coordinating the University’s copyright education services, identifying recommended and sustainable service models to support scholarly communication activities on the campus and coordinating formalized discussion and education of these issues with faculty, students, research and publishing constituencies on the UBC campus. Joy has also been instrumental in working with faculty to host their open access journals through the Library’s open access journal hosting program; she was involved in the implementation and content recruitment of the Library’s open access  institutional repository, and she was instrumental in establishing the Provost’s Scholarly Communications Steering Committee and associated working groups where she sits as a key member of the Committee looking into an open access position at UBC amongst other things..  Joy is also chair of UBC’s Copyright Advisory Committee and working groups. She is also a faculty member with the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) / Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Institute for Scholarly Communication, she assists with the coordination and program development of ACRL’s much lauded Scholarly Communications Road Show program, she is a Visiting Program Officer with ACRL in support of their scholarly communications programs, and she is a Fellow with ARL’s Research Library Leadership Fellows executive program (RLLF). Previous positions includes Librarian, for Collections, Licensing & Digital Scholarship (UBC), Electronic Resources Coordinator (Columbia Univ.), Medical & Allied Health Librarian and Science & Engineering Librarian. She holds a BA and an MLIS from the University of British Columbia.

I’m starting to get the impression that there is a concerted communications effort taking place. Between this listing and the one in my May 28, 2012 posting, there are just too many articles and events occurring to be purely chance.

Become a science blogger for the UK’s Guardian newspaper

The Guardian newspaper  in the UK has a small network of science blogs which they are wanting to expand. At this point, they are looking for UK-based science bloggers but there is a hint that soon the invitation to make a submission will be extended to bloggers from other parts of the world.

From the Jan. 27, 2012 posting by Alok Jha, science correspondent for the Guardian,

Just under 17 months ago, the Guardian launched a small network of science blogs. Each blogger – Martin Robbins, Evan Harris, Jon Butterworth, GrrlScientist and Mo Costandi – was given complete freedom to write about whatever they wished, as often as they wished, independent of any oversight (other than legal) from Guardian editors. We hope that, in the intervening time, they’ve managed to do what I tentatively promised at the time of launch: to entertain, enrage and inform.

These blogs and websites (and the associated reader and Twitter conversations that run in parallel with them) have demonstrated an ever-growing thirst for science on the web. As such, we’re pleased to announce that the Guardian’s science blogs network is easing itself out of experimentation mode and into rapid growth.

Our plan, to start with, is to find some of the best UK-based science bloggers and add them to the network. If you already run a blog or website and think it would fit well into our existing network, let us know by filling in the form below. We particularly want to encourage applications from women bloggers and people who write about subjects that are not already covered in our current mix. We’re particularly interested in space, cosmology, palaeontology, Earth science, mathematics, chemistry and genomics, for example.

You might be a practising scientist, a journalist or just a fan of science. We want to hear from you. You may be an experienced blogger or someone who’s just started. Either way we’d love to hear from you.

As I recall, there was serious criticism about the dearth of female science bloggers on the Guardian Science Blogs network when it was launched. I imagine that’s why they are particularly interested in women bloggers.

The closing date for submissions from UK-based science bloggers is Monday, Feb. 13, 2012 at 9 am (GMT I assume). The rest of us will have to wait. The submission form follows Jha’s Jan. 27, 2012 posting.

Questions cover such subjects as your qualifications (formal and informal), favourite blog to read (doesn’t have to be science), how often you post, why should they pick you, etc.

Guardian hosts live streaming convo on nanotechnology and health in an aging population

In one week, Jan. 31, 2012, the Guardian newspaper in the UK is inviting people (I previewed the process for participating and it is not limited to citizens of the UK) to take part in a live debate with the UK’s Minister of Science and Technology and an assortment of nanotechnology and nanomedicine researchers titled, How nanotechnology is prolonging life. From the Guardian’s nanotechnology event announcement page,

According to government figures, there are currently about 10 million people over the age of 65 in the UK and by 2050, that figure will have almost doubled to 19 million.

This changing demographic will place an unprecedented strain on health and social services. Fortunately more and more people are taking steps to ensure their old age is spent in good health and new medical advances that rely on nanotechnology are coming to the fore, which allow for better treatments, diagnosis and prevention of diseases associated with old age.

But what are the challenges and wider implications of using nanotechnology to prolong life and support a healthier, more independent ageing population?

The debate is being moderated by Alok Jha, science correspondent for the Guardian, and guests expected to participate include,

David Willetts, MP, minister for universities and science
Dr Mark Miodownik, head of the Materials Research Group, Kings College London
Professor Shervanthi Homer-Vanniasinkam, consultant vascular surgeon, Leeds General Infirmary
Dr Leonard Fass, director academic relations, GE Healthcare
Professor Peter Dobson, director for Oxford Begbroke and chief strategic adviser to Research Councils UK for nanotechnology
Professor Kostas Kostarelos, chair of nanomedicine, Centre for Drug Delivery Research, School of Pharmacy, University of London
Dr Donald Bruce, managing director, Edinethics

This is not the Guardian’s first nanotechnology debate, the paper hosted an online debate (a Q&A session with a nanotechnology expert [Dr. Mark Miodownik]) in mid-December 2011 (mentioned in my Dec. 16, 2011 posting).  So, it’s a bit strange they don’t do more than give the starting time for the debate, 3 pm GMT but no ending time since that information was given for the Dec. 2011 debate.

For those of us on the west coast of North America, this means a 7 am start. I believe you have to register to attend the session. Well, I don’t particularly want to register but I did try out the system.

I could choose my country but was much amused to note how they list the timezones. If I wanted to specify my timezone (PST), I’d have to choose either San Francisco or Tijuana. The Canadian choices included, Saskatchewan, Halifax, and Newfoundland (no mention of Labrador).

Good on Saskatchewan, Halifax, and Newfoundland but why were those three locations chosen in particular? These are very unusual choices and the equivalent of ignoring London (UK) while allowing people to choose Cornwall, Leicester, or Northunberland (pretending for a moment that they are in different timezones). No disrespect is meant to any region but it is unusual to see Ottawa, Toronto, and/or Montréal left out.

The smallness of the Higgs mass (finding the Higgs boson)

As I noted last week (in my Dec. 6, 2011 posting), there was a big Dec. 13, 2011 announcement from CERN (European Laboratory for Particle Physics) about the Higgs boson. No, they haven’t found it but researchers believe they’ve discovered a hint of where it might be—this ‘hint’ has made international news.

For anyone who may have some questions about what exactly a Higgs boson is, here’s a video of “Fermilab scientist Don Lincoln [describing] the nature of the Higgs boson. Several large experimental groups are hot on the trail of this elusive subatomic particle which is thought to explain the origins of particle mass” (from the YouTube description),

Here’s a little more about why there’s so much excitement, from the Dec. 13, 2011 news item on Science Daily,

The Standard Model is the theory that physicists use to describe the behaviour of fundamental particles [the smallest discrete entities that make up matter and are not made up of smaller constituent bits of matter themselves] and the forces that act between them. It describes the ordinary matter from which we, and everything visible in the Universe, are made extremely well. Nevertheless, the Standard Model does not describe the 96% of the Universe that is invisible. One of the main goals of the LHC [Large Hadron Collider] research programme is to go beyond the Standard Model, and the Higgs boson could be the key.

A Standard Model Higgs boson would confirm a theory first put forward in the 1960s, but there are other possible forms the Higgs boson could take, linked to theories that go beyond the Standard Model. A Standard Model Higgs could still point the way to new physics, through subtleties in its behaviour that would only emerge after studying a large number of Higgs particle decays. A non-Standard Model Higgs, currently beyond the reach of the LHC experiments with data so far recorded, would immediately open the door to new physics, whereas the absence of a Standard Model Higgs would point strongly to new physics at the LHC’s full design energy, set to be achieved after 2014. Whether ATLAS [research group at CERN] and CMS [research group at CERN] show over the coming months that the Standard Model Higgs boson exists or not, the LHC programme is opening the way to new physics.

The search for the Higgs boson has been ongoing for some 40 or 50 years and this announcement points to a definitive answer as to its existence by late 2012.

Two groups at CERN have reported on the results of their search for the Higgs boson. From the Dec. 13, 2011 news item on physorg.com,

Two experiments at the Large Hadron Collider have nearly eliminated the space in which the Higgs boson could dwell, scientists announced in a seminar held at CERN today. However, the ATLAS and CMS experiments see modest excesses in their data that could soon uncover the famous missing piece of the physics puzzle.

The experiments revealed the latest results as part of their regular report to the CERN Council, which provides oversight for the laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland.

Theorists have predicted that some subatomic particles gain mass by interacting with other particles called Higgs bosons. The Higgs boson is the only undiscovered part of the Standard Model of physics, which describes the basic building blocks of matter and their interactions.

The experiments’ main conclusion is that the Standard Model Higgs boson, if it exists, is most likely to have a mass constrained to the range 116-130 GeV by the ATLAS experiment, and 115-127 GeV by CMS. Tantalising hints have been seen by both experiments in this mass region, but these are not yet strong enough to claim a discovery.

Scientists (Philip Schuster, Natalia Toro, and Andy Haas) at the Dec. 13, 2011 (9:30 am PST) Perimeter Institute webcast (What the Higgs is going on?), which took place a few hours after the CERN announcement, exhibited a lot of excitement liberally spiced with caution in regard to the announcement.  The webcast is available for viewing and if you’re wondering whether it’s suitable for you, here’s a description from the event webpage,

What is everything in the universe made of? What was the universe like billions of years ago?

These are eternal questions that humans have pondered throughout the ages. Today, we are on the verge of potentially making revolutionary breakthroughs in answering them.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN is a 27-kilometre long underground experiment located on the Swiss-French border near Geneva. It smashes subatomic particles together at vast speeds in an effort to learn more about the fundamental building blocks that make up everything around you. It is the biggest, most ambitious scientific experiment in human history.

On December 13, the LHC will announce its latest findings in its search for the last undiscovered particle in our current model of subatomic particles. This particle is the near-mythical ‘Higgs Boson’ — the particle thought to be involved in giving other particles their mass.

This educational event, geared towards high school students, teachers and the general public, will follow CERN’s announcement and discuss its findings and their background and implications in clear, accessible language.

You can view the webcast from here. The description of how scientists choose which events to measure and the process they use to define whether or not an event is significant adds to one’s appreciation of the work being done in these projects.

Jon Butterworth, a physicist who works at CERN and whose blog is one of the Guardian science blogs, wrote a limerick about it all in his Dec. 13, 2011 posting,

A physicist saw an enigma
And called to his mum “Flying pig, ma!”
She said “Flying pigs?
Next thing you’ll see the Higgs!”
He said “Nah, not until it’s five sigma!”

Five sigma is a measure of certainty. The current results have a 2.3 sigma, which is promising but the gold standard is five.

Here’s the live blog that Alok Jha, science correspondent for the Guardain, kept during the Dec. 13, 2011 announcement (excerpted from the live blog),

1.01pm: Cern’s live webcast has begun, but the seminar has yet to start. The expressions on some of the faces in the audience suggests Christmas is about to come early for the physics community.

1.02pm: Ok the seminar has started, but traffic to the webcast is obviously heavy, breaking up the transmission.

TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, held a public seminar at 2:30 pm PST (Dec. 13, 2011) on their site at the University of British Columbia. They also have some information on their website about Canadian scientists who are involved in the CERN experiments ( from the Research Highlights page,  Physicists Smell but Don’t Yet Taste Higgs),

In a seminar held at CERN this morning and then repeated across Canada at multiple partnering institutions, the ATLAS and CMS experiments presented the status of their searches for the Standard Model Higgs boson. Finding this particle would snap in the last missing puzzle piece of the Standard Model that describes the universe at its most basic level. Tantalizing hints have been seen by both experiments in the same mass region, but these are not yet strong enough to claim a discovery. The main conclusion is that the Standard Model Higgs boson, if it exists, is most likely to have a mass in the range 115-130 GeV, excluding essentially all other hiding places.

“We are at a crossroads in our understanding of how energy gained mass and became matter in the early universe,” said Rob McPherson, spokesperson of the Canadian team working on the ATLAS project and a professor at the University of Victoria and a research scientist with the Institute of Particle Physics. “If these hints lead to a firm discovery over the coming year, we will be at the start of our investigation of the interactions that lie behind our current theories. If they are not confirmed, we will have to reject our present understanding, throw out our current theories, and start over. It is an extremely interesting time in particle physics.”

So there you have it. They think they observed something but they’re not sure, which makes for a very exciting time (they hope). While I’m not a scientist and cannot fully appreciate this moment, I can remember similar moments in my own work when something seems to be coming into focus. It isn’t my final result but it does hint at what is to come and gives me the resolve (giddy excitement for a few hours or days) I need to continue because a lot of what I do is slogging (I recognize the word play).

On a final note, it seems there was a minor crisis during the presentations in CERN. Lily Asquith, at the Argonne National Laboratory [Chicago, US] writes about it on Jon Butterworth’s blog (Guardian science blogs) in her Dec. 14, 2011 posting,

We have a large windowless meeting room at Argonne with an old-fashioned pull-down projector screen. When I walked in there yesterday morning for the CERN videolink I was greeted by 30-odd ashen-faced physicists. Oh lord, I thought, there has been a terrible accident. …

There stands Fabiola Gianotti [particle physicist in charge of the ATLAS experiment in CERN], our queen, looking fabulous and doing a typically faultless job of presenting a complicated and not-yet-conclusive measurement; taking the work of hundreds of nutty, stressed-out physicists and breathing sense into it.

But I hear only one thing as I walk the corridors of my lab and of the internet:

comic sans [the font Gianotti used for the text in her presentation]

- why‽

Do we need to add an additional systematic uncertainty to all our measurements based on this unwise choice of font? Are any of our results still valid? What does this mean for the speed of light?

Please do read the rest of Asquith’s very amusing piece. Who knew physicists are so concerned with fonts?

For the curious, here’s a sample of Comic Sans along with a history excerpt from its Wikipedia essay,

Microsoft designer Vincent Connare says that he began work on Comic Sans in October of 1994. Connare had already created a number of child-oriented fonts for various applications, so when he saw a beta version of Microsoft Bob that used Times New Roman in the word balloons of cartoon characters, he decided to create a new face based on the lettering style of comic books he had in his office, specifically The Dark Knight Returns (lettered by John Costanza) and Watchmen (lettered by Dave Gibbons).

So the font was originally designed for children and comic books, eh?

Scientific spat and libel case in UK has Canadian connection

Neil Turok, Director of the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics located in Waterloo, Canada, has been described as being insufficiently qualified to assess a fellow scientist’s work. Alok Jha, science correspondent for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, writes about the situation which includes a libel suit against Nature magazine in his Nov. 18, 2011 article,

A scientist who is suing one of the world’s most prominent scientific journals for libel compared himself to Albert Einstein in the high court on Friday [Nov. 18, 2011] as part of his evidence against the journal. Professor Mohamed El Naschie, also claimed that an eminent physicist brought in by the journal as an expert witness to analyse the value of his work was not sufficiently qualified to do so.

El Naschie is suing Nature as a result of a news article published in 2008, after the scientist’s retirement as editor-in-chief of the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals. The article alleged that El Naschie had self-published several research papers, some of which did not seem to have been peer reviewed to an expected standard and also said that El Naschie claimed affiliations and honorary professorships with international institutions that could not be confirmed by Nature. El Naschie claims the allegations in the article were false and had damaged his reputation.

On Friday, Nature called Professor Neil Turok, a cosmologist and director of the Perimeter Institute in Canada, as an expert witness to assess some of the work published by El Naschie.

In his evidence, Turok said he found it difficult to understand the logic in some of El Naschie’s papers. The clear presentation of scientific ideas was an important step in getting an idea accepted, he said. “There are two questions – one is whether the work is clearly presented and readers would be able to understand it. It would be difficult for a trained theoretical physicist to understand [some of El Naschie's papers]. …  The second question is about the correctness of the theory and that will be decided by whether it agrees with experiments. Most theories in theoretical physics are speculative – we form a logical set of rules and deductions and we try, ultimately, to test the deductions in experiments.

There’s more at stake here than whether or not Turok is qualified or El Naschie’s work is up to the standards in his field, this is also about libel and libel laws in England. There have been some intended consequences from the current set of laws. Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia essay,

Libel tourism is a term first coined by Geoffrey Robertson to describe forum shopping for libel suits. It particularly refers to the practice of pursuing a case in England and Wales, in preference to other jurisdictions, such as the United States, which provide more extensive defences for those accused of making derogatory statements. According to the English publishing house Sweet & Maxwell, the number of libel cases brought by people alleged to be involved with terrorism almost tripled in England between 2006 and 2007.

Jha goes on to finish his first article on El Naschie’s libel case with this,

Sile Lane, a spokesperson for the Libel Reform campaign said: “Scientists expect publications like Nature to investigate and write about controversies within the scientific community. The threat of libel action is preventing scientific journals from discussing what is good and bad science. This case is another example of why we need libel law that has a clear strong public interest defence and a high threshold for bringing a case. The government has promised to reform the libel laws and this can’t come soon enough.”

I last wrote about the libel situation in the UK in my Nov. 12, 2010 posting, International call to action on libel laws in the UK.

Nanomaterials, nanomedicines and nanodefinitions

I was chatting earlier this week, in the most general way possible, with someone in Ottawa about nanotechnology and regulations.  The individual noted that nanotechnology initiatives in various countries and regions are attaining traction and I think the evidence is in the increased (and heated) discussion/debate about defining nanomaterials. The latest twist in the discussion comes from Alok Jha, a science writer for The Guardian. In his Sept. 6, 2011 article, Nanotechnoglogy world: Nanomedicine offers new cures, he tackles the topic from the nanomedicine perspective.

The EU ObservatoryNano organisation, which supports European policy makers through scientific and economic analysis of nanoscience and nanotechnology developments, produced a report on the ethics of nanotechnology written by Ineke Malsch, director of Malsch TechnoValuation. She says the problem with regulating medical nanotechnology can be how to define a product’s area of application. “The distinction between a medical device and a pharmaceutical is quite fuzzy. …”

How do you regulate a drug-releasing implant, for example? Is Cuschieri’s nano-carrier a pharmaceutical or a medical device? One of [the] key issues, says Malsch, is that there is the lack of common agreement or definition, at the international level, of what a nanoparticle is and what constitutes nanomedicines. “There is continuing discussion about these definitions which will hopefully be resolved before the end of the year.”

Current regulations are more than enough for current technologies, says Malsch, but she adds that this will need to be kept under review. But over-regulating now would also be a mistake. Pre-empting (and trying to pre-regulate) technology that does not yet exist is not a good idea, she says.

This view was backed up by Professor Andrew Maynard, the director of the Risk Science Centre, who says: “With policy-makers looking for clear definitions on which to build ‘nano-regulations’, there is a growing danger of science being pushed aside.”

This (the fuzzy distinction between a pharamaceutical and a medical device) certainly adds a new twist to the debate for me.

Also, I should note that this article’s banner says: Nanotechnology world, in association with Nano Channels.Tim Harper (Cientifica and TNTlog) noticed in an earlier Guardian article on nanotechnology (from his July 7, 2011 posting),

My delight at seeing a sensible piece about “nanotechnology in everyday life” by Colin Stuart (@skyponderer) published in the Guardian Newspaper turned to puzzlement when I noticed that the article was “Paid for by NanoChannels.”

There seems to be some distinction between “paid for” and “in association with,” but I can’t confirm that at this time. Now back to the topic.

In my August 31, 2011 posting, I noted the latest salvo from Hermann Stamm, of the European Commission Joint Research Centre, Institute for Health and Consumer Protection where he reiterated that a hard and fast definition based on size is the best choice. In his Sept. 6, 2011 posting, Andrew where he expands on a concern (i. e. policymakers will formulate a definition not based on scientific data but based on political pressures and/or public relations worries) that I’ve given short shrift. From his Sept. 6, 2011 posting,

And despite policy makers repeatedly stating that any form of nanomaterial regulation should be science-based, I have the sense that they are scrambling to use science to justify a predetermined conclusion – that engineered nanomaterials should be regulated on the basis of a hard and fast definition – rather than using science to guide their actions.Instead, I would suggest that we need to put aside preconceptions of what is important and what is not here, and start by asking how new generations of sophisticated (or advanced) materials interact with biological systems; where these interactions have the potential to cause harm in ways not captured within current regulatory frameworks; and how these frameworks can be adapted or altered to ensure that an increasing number of unusual substances are developed and used as safely as possible – no matter what label or “brand” is applied to them.

He was a little more explicit about what he thinks are the reasons behind this preference for a “hard and fast definition” in his April 15, 2011 posting,

Sadly, it now looks like we are heading toward a situation where the definitions of nanomaterials underpinning regulations will themselves be based on policy, not science.

This scares the life out of me, because it ends up taking evidence off the table when it comes to oversight, and replacing it with assumptions and speculation on what people think is relevant, rather than what actually is – not good for safety, and certainly not good for business.

 

All this got me to thinking about the Interim Policy Statement on Health Canada’s Working Definition for Nanomaterials and the public consultation which ended August 31, 2010.  According to the website, we will be learning the results of the consultation,

Reporting to Canadians

Health Canada will make the results of this consultation available on this Web site.  Health Canada will take further steps to illustrate how the policy statement will be applied in specific contexts.  These steps could include guidance documents for specific products or substances, targeted workshops and postings of answers to frequently asked questions.  The Interim Policy Statement on Health Canada’s Working Definition for Nanomaterials will be updated as comments are received, as the body of scientific evidence increases, and as international norms progress.

If you have any questions, contact [email protected].

Strangely, there’s no mention of the 29 submissions that were made (my May 27, 2011 posting)  or a listing of who made the submissions as was done for Canada’s ‘innovation consultation’ or, more formally, the Review of Federal Support to Research and Development (which started in Oct. 2010 and ended in Feb. 2011 and received some 250 submissions).

Elemental difference: a bacterium that lives on arsenic

[ETA Dec. 8, 2010: The 'arsenic bacterium' story noted has been corrected in my Dec. 8, 2010 posting. The conclusions first reported do not seem to be supported by the evidence in the article.] There’s a podcast over at The Guardian science blogs that features last week’s story from NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) about a bacterium, living deep in a California Lake, that uses arsenic instead of phosphorus in its molecular makeup. From the Dec. 2, 2010 article by Alok Jha for The Guardian newspaper,

A bacterium discovered in a Californian lake appears to be able to use arsenic in its molecular make-up instead of phosphorus – even incorporating the toxic chemical into its DNA. That’s significant because it goes against the general rule that all terrestrial life depends on six elements: oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus.  These are needed to build DNA, proteins and fats and are some of the biological signatures of life that scientists look for on other planets. [emphases mine]

Christened GFAJ-1, the microbe lends weight to the notion held by some astrobiologists that there might be “weird” forms of life on Earth, as yet undiscovered, that use elements other than the basic six in their metabolism. Among those who have speculated is Prof Paul Davies, a cosmologist at Arizona State University and an author on the latest research.

“This organism has dual capability – it can grow with either phosphorus or arsenic,” said Davies. “That makes it very peculiar, though it falls short of being some form of truly ‘alien’ life belonging to a different tree of life with a separate origin. However, GFAJ-1 may be a pointer to even weirder organisms. The holy grail would be a microbe that contained no phosphorus at all.”

As the pundits note, this changes some fundamental ideas we have about life on this planet and elsewhere.

Getting back to the podcast, the hosts also cover stories about the neanderthals and the [UK] Natural History Museum’s new approach to telling the story of evolution using a ‘kid-proof iPad’.