Tag Archives: Center for Nanotechnology in Society UCSB

Nanotechnology analogies and policy

There’s a two part essay titled, Regulating Nanotechnology Via Analogy (part 1, Feb. 12, 2013 and part 2, Feb. 18, 2013), by Patrick McCray on his Leaping Robot blog that is well worth reading if you are interested in the impact analogies can have on policymaking.

Before launching into the analogies, here’s a bit about Patrick McCray from the Welcome page to his website, (Note: A link has been removed),

As a professor in the History Department of the University of California, Santa Barbara and a co-founder of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society, my work focuses on different technological and scientific communities and their interactions with the public and policy makers. For the past ten years or so, I’ve been especially interested in the historical development of so-called “emerging technologies,” whenever they emerged.

I hope you enjoy wandering around my web site. The section of it that changes most often is my Leaping Robot blog. I update this every few weeks or so with an extended reflection or essay about science and technology, past and future.

In part 1 (Feb. 12, 2013) of the essay, McCray states (Note: Links and footnotes have been removed),

[Blogger’s note: This post is adapted from a talk I gave in March 2012 at the annual Business History Conference; it draws on research done by Roger Eardley-Pryor, an almost-finished graduate student I'm advising at UCSB [University of California at Santa Barbara], and me. I’m posting it here with his permission. This is the first of a two-part essay…some of the images come from slides we put together for the talk.]

Over the last decade, a range of actors – scientists, policy makers, and activists – have used  historical analogies to suggest different ways that risks associated with nanotechnology – especially those concerned with potential environmental implications – might be minimized. Some of these analogies make sense…others, while perhaps effective, are based on a less than ideal reading of history.

Analogies have been used before as tools to evaluate new technologies. In 1965, NASA requested comparisons between the American railroad of the 19th century and the space program. In response, MIT historian Bruce Mazlish wrote a classic article that analyzed the utility and limitations of historical analogies. Analogies, he explained, function as both model and myth. Mythically, they offer meaning and emotional security through an original archetype of familiar knowledge. Analogies also furnish models for understanding by construing either a structural or a functional relationship. As such, analogies function as devices of anticipation which what today is fashionably called “anticipatory governance.”They also can serve as a useful tool for risk experts.

McCray goes on to cover some of the early discourse on nanotechnology, the players, and early analogies. While the focus is on the US, the discourse reflects many if not all of the concerns being expressed internationally.

In part 2 posted on Feb. 18, 2013 McCray mentions four of the main analogies used with regard to nanotechnology and risk (Note: Footnotes have been removed),

Example #1 – Genetically Modified Organisms

In April 2003, Prof. Vicki Colvin testified before Congress. A chemist at Rice University, Colvin also directed that school’s Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology. This “emerging technology,” Colvin said, had a considerable “wow index.” However, Colvin warned, every promising new technology came with concerns that could drive it from “wow into yuck and ultimately into bankrupt.” To make her point, Colvin compared nanotech to recent experiences researchers and industry had experienced with genetically modified organisms. Colvin’s analogy – “wow to yuck” – made an effective sound bite. But it also conflated two very different histories of two specific emerging technologies.

While some lessons from GMOs are appropriate for controlling the development of nanotechnology, the analogy doesn’t prove watertight. Unlike GMOs, nanotechnology does not always involve biological materials. And genetic engineering in general, never enjoyed any sort of unalloyed “wow” period. There was “yuck” from the outset. Criticism accompanied GMOs from the very start. Furthermore, giant agribusiness firms prospered handsomely even after the public’s widespread negative reactions to their products.  Lastly, living organisms – especially those associated with food – designed for broad release into the environment were almost guaranteed to generate concerns and protests. Rhetorically, the GMO analogy was powerful…but a deeper analysis clearly suggests there were more differences than similarities.

McCray offers three more examples of analogies used to describe nanotechnology: asbestos, (radioactive) fallout, and Recombinant DNA which he dissects and concludes are not the best analogies to be using before offering this thought,

So — If historical analogies teach can teach us anything about the potential regulation of nano and other emerging technologies, they indicate the need to take a little risk in forming socially and politically constructed definitions of nano. These definitions should be based not just on science but rather mirror the complex and messy realm of research, policy, and application. No single analogy fits all cases but an ensemble of several (properly chosen, of course) can suggest possible regulatory options.

I recommend reading both parts of McCray’s essay in full. It’s a timely piece especially in light of a Feb. 28, 2013 article by Daniel Hurst for Australian website, theage.com.au, where a union leader raises health fears about nanotechnology by using the response to asbestos health concerns as the analogy,

Union leader Paul Howes has likened nanotechnology to asbestos, calling for more research to ease fears that the growing use of fine particles could endanger manufacturing workers.

”I don’t want to make the mistake that my predecessors made by not worrying about asbestos,” the Australian Workers Union secretary said.

I have covered the topic of carbon nanotubes and asbestos many times, one of the  latest being this Jan. 16, 2013 posting. Not all carbon nanotubes act like asbestos; the long carbon nanotubes present the problems.

Environmental decoherence tackled by University of British Columbia and California researchers

The research team at the University of British Columbia (UBC) proved a theory for the prediction and control of environmental decoherence in a complex system (an important step on the way to quantum computing) while researchers performed experiments at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) to prove the theory.  Here’s an explanation of decoherence and its impact on quantum computing from the July 20, 2011 UBC news release,

Quantum mechanics states that matter can be in more than one physical state at the same time – like a coin simultaneously showing heads and tails. In small objects like electrons, physicists have had success in observing and controlling these simultaneous states, called “state superpositions.”

Larger, more complex physical systems appear to be in one consistent physical state because they interact and “entangle” with other objects in their environment. This entanglement makes these complex objects “decay” into a single state – a process called decoherence.

Quantum computing’s potential to be exponentially faster and more powerful than any conventional computer technology depends on switches that are capable of state superposition – that is, being in the “on” and “off” positions at the same time. Until now, all efforts to achieve such superposition with many molecules at once were blocked by decoherence.

The UBC research team, headed by Phil Stamp, developed a theory for predicting and controlling environmental decoherence in the Iron-8 molecule, which is considered a large complex system.

Iron-8 molecule (image provided by UBC)

This next image represents one of two states of decoherence, i. e., the molecule ‘occupies’ only one of two superpositions, spin up or spin down,

 

Decoherence: occupying either the spin up or spin down position (image provided by UBC)

Here’s how the team at the UCSB proved the theory experimentally,

In their study, Takahashi [Professor Susumu Takahashi is now at the University of Southern California {USC}] and his colleagues investigated single crystals of molecular magnets. Because of their purity, molecular magnets eliminate the extrinsic decoherence, allowing researchers to calculate intrinsic decoherence precisely.

“For the first time, we’ve been able to predict and control all the environmental decoherence mechanisms in a very complex system – in this case a large magnetic molecule,” said Phil Stamp, University of British Columbia professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Pacific Institute of Theoretical Physics.

Using crystalline molecular magnets allowed researchers to build qubits out of an immense quantity of quantum particles rather than a single quantum object – the way most proto-quantum computers are built at the moment.

I did try to find definitions for extrinsic and intrinsic decoherence unfortunately the best I could find is the one provided by USC (from the news item on Nanowerk),

Decoherence in qubit systems falls into two general categories. One is an intrinsic decoherence caused by constituents in the qubit system, and the other is an extrinsic decoherence caused by imperfections of the system - impurities and defects, for example.

I have a conceptual framework of sorts for a ‘qubit system’, I just don’t understand what they mean by ‘system’. I performed an internet search and virtually all of the references I found to intrinsic and extrinsic decoherence cite this news release or, in a few cases, papers written by physicists for other physicists. If anyone could help clarify this question for me, I would much appreciate it.

Leaving extrinsic and intrinsic systems aside, the July 20, 2011 news item on Science Daily provides a little more detail about the experiment,

In the experiment, the California researchers prepared a crystalline array of Iron-8 molecules in a quantum superposition, where the net magnetization of each molecule was simultaneously oriented up and down. The decay of this superposition by decoherence was then observed in time — and the decay was spectacularly slow, behaving exactly as the UBC researchers predicted.

“Magnetic molecules now suddenly appear to have serious potential as candidates for quantum computing hardware,” said Susumu Takahashi, assistant professor of chemistry and physics at the University of Southern California.

Congratulations to all of the researchers involved.

ETA July 22, 2011: I changed the title to correct the grammar.

China’s nanotechnology rise

Eric Berger’s blog, SciGuy, recently highlighted some data about the number of nanotechnology/nanoscience articles published by Chinese researchers. You can see the entry and the table listing the world’s most prolific (overwhelmingly Chinese)  nanotech authors here. It’s interesting to contrast this data with a Nature Nanotechnology editorial from June 2008 where they had tables listing the countries with the most published nanotech articles and the most frequently cited articles. At the time, I thought China was under-represented although I don’t state it explicitly in my comments here.

Berger was inspired to write his commentary after seeing Eric Drexler’s posting on the topic (Oct. 30, 2009) but I’m directing you to Drexler’s followup comments where he provides some context for better understanding the statistics and cites sources that discuss the matter at more length.

The general consensus seems to be that some of China’s nanotech research is world class and the quality of majority of the research papers is either very good or improving rapidly.

There’s also this from the Center for Nanotechnology in Society University of California Santa Barbara (CNS-UCSB) paper, Chinese Nanotechnology Publications (scroll down the page to IRG 4-3 to read the full abstract),

China’s top-down and government-centered approach toward science and technology policy is succeeding in driving academic-publications output. By 2005 China had equaled or possibly surpassed the U.S. in terms of total output for academic/peer-reviewed publications, with a substantial increase in publication rate from around 2003. … We examined US and Chinese nanotechnology trends in the scientific literature and found that Chinese nanotechnology output is growing rapidly and will likely [outperform?] US output in terms of quality as well as quantity within a decade or less (Appelbaum & Parker 2008).

I include this portion of the abstract because  the phrase, “China’s top-down and government-centered approach to science and technology” points to something that’s not explicitly noted in the abstract, cultural and political climate. Nor was it noted in Bruce Alberts’ speech (in my Is science superior? posting) and as Inkbat noted in her comments to that posting. (My apologies to Mr. Alberts if he did make those points, unfortunately his speech is not available on the conference website so I’m depending on attendee reports.)

It’s a tricky matter trying to compare countries. China has more people and presumably more scientists than anyone else, all of which should result in more published articles if the area of research is supported by policy.

One of the issues for Canada is that we have a relatively small population and consequently fewer scientists. I commented on some work done by M. Fatih Yegul (in June 2008) where he contextualizes the number of Canadian articles published on nanotechnology and our focus on collaboration. Here’s part 2 of the series where I mentioned the numbers. (I did not post much material from Yegul’s paper as he was about to present it an international conference and it had yet to be published. I just checked today [Nov.4.09] and cannot confirm publication.)  My comments from part 3 of the series,

It’s all pretty interesting including the suggestion (based on a study that showed Canada as ranking 6th in numbers of science articles published from 1995-2005) that Canada is performing below its own average with regard to nanotechnology research.

I don’t know if the situation in Canada has changed since Yegul wrote and presented his paper but I strongly suspect it has not.

As for the roles that culture, social mores, history, and political environment play, I just can’t manage more than a mention in this posting in an effort to acknowledge their importance.

Do check out Rob Annan’s posting today (Nov. 4, 2009) about Science and Innovation in the wake of the 2009 Canadian Science Policy Conference.

Alberta and Texas collaborate on nanotechnology and greenish energy; a meta analysis of public perceptions of nanotechnology risks; how scientists think

The Premier of Alberta (Canada), Ed Stelmach, has signed a memorandum of understanding with Rice University (Texas, US) President, David Leebron, to collaborate through nanoAlberta (Alberta Advanced Education and Technology) and the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology (Rice University). The two institutions will collaborate in the energy, environmental, medical,  agriculture, and forestry sectors. From the news item on Azonano,

Wade Adams, director of the Smalley Institute, said the interests of nanoAlberta and those of his team at Rice are perfectly aligned. “We want to help them figure out how to extract oil from their resources in a more environmentally friendly way, a more efficient way and one that will cause less damage to their own territory as well as provide oil for the needs of the human race, as they become a more important source of it.”

When I read the title for the item I thought they were referring to green or bio fuels but, as you can see from the quote, the intention is altogether different. From a pragmatic perspective, since we have to depend on fossil fuels for a while longer, it’s best if we can find more environmentally friendly ways to extract it while developing other renewable sources.

This reminds me of the recent invite I received from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) for the Perverse Incentives: The Untold Story of Federal Subsidies for Fossil Fuels event held on Sept. 18, 2009. Unfortunately, the webcast isn’t available quite yet but I think that in light of this memorandum it could be interesting viewing and might provide a critical perspective on the initiative.

PEN is holding another somewhat related event on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009 at 12:30 pm EST, Nanotechnology, Synthetic Biology, and Biofuels: What does the public think? If you’re in Washington, DC, you can attend the event live but you should RSVP here, otherwise there’s a live webcast which is posted a few days later on their website.  (There’s a PEN event tomorrow, Sept. 23, 2009 at 12 pm to 2:30 pm EST, titled Transatlantic Regulatory Cooperation: Securing the Promise of Nanotechnologies. If you wish to attend the live event, you can RSVP using the link I’ve posted previously. If you’re interested in this event, in June I posted a more complete description of it here.)

One more Canadian development on the nanotechnology front, a meta analysis of 22 surveys on public perceptions of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology has been published at Nature Online as of Sept. 20, 2009. The article (lead author from the University of British Columbia, Canada)  is behind a paywall but you can read more about it in the news item on Nanowerk (from the news item),

Previous studies have found that new and unknown technologies such as biotechnology tend to be regarded as risky, but that’s not the case for nanotechnology, according to this research. People who thought nanotechnology had more benefits than risks outnumbered those who perceived greater risks by 3 to 1 in this study. The 44 percent of people who didn’t have an opinion either way surprised the researchers. “You don’t normally get that reluctance,” says Terre Satterfield of the University of British Columbia in Canada, lead author of the study and a collaborator with CNS-UCSB [Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara].

In almost three years of scanning, I don’t think I’ve ever seen two announcements that both feature a Canadian nanotechnology development of sorts. This is a banner day!

Topping today off, I’m going to segue into How Scientists Think.  It’s a paper about how scientists creatively problem solve.  From the news item on Physorg.com,

Her [Dr. Nancy J. Nersessian] study of the working methods of scientists helps in understanding how class and instructional laboratory settings can be improved to foster creativity, and how new teaching methods can be developed based on this understanding. These methods will allow science students to master model-based reasoning approaches to problem solving and open the field to many more who do not think of themselves as traditional “scientists.”

I’ve been interested in how scientists think because I’ve been trying to understand why the communication with ‘non scientists’ can be so poor. To some extent I think it is cultural. After years of training in special skills and a special language, scientists are members of a unique occupational culture, which has given birth to many, many subcultures. People who are immersed in their own cultures don’t always realize that the rest of us may not understand what they’re saying very well. (Try reading art criticism if you don’t have an understanding of art history and critical theory.) That’s my short answer and, one of these days, I’m going to write a paper with my long answer.

I had every intention of writing another part of my science communication series today but I have a couple of projects to start or finish and these series postings take more time than I have to spare.