Tag Archives: Eric Drexler

A transatlantic report highlighting the risks and opportunities associated with synthetic biology and bioengineering

I love e-Life, the open access journal where its editors noted that a submitted synthetic biology and bioengineering report was replete with US and UK experts (along with a European or two) but no expert input from other parts of the world. In response the authors added ‘transatlantic’ to the title. It was a good decision since it was too late to add any new experts if the authors planned to have their paper published in the foreseeable future.

I’ve commented many times here when panels of experts include only Canadian, US, UK, and, sometimes, European or Commonwealth (Australia/New Zealand) experts that we need to broaden our perspectives and now I can add: or at least acknowledge (e.g. transatlantic) that the perspectives taken are reflective of a rather narrow range of countries.

Now getting to the report, here’s more from a November 21, 2017 University of Cambridge press release,

Human genome editing, 3D-printed replacement organs and artificial photosynthesis – the field of bioengineering offers great promise for tackling the major challenges that face our society. But as a new article out today highlights, these developments provide both opportunities and risks in the short and long term.

Rapid developments in the field of synthetic biology and its associated tools and methods, including more widely available gene editing techniques, have substantially increased our capabilities for bioengineering – the application of principles and techniques from engineering to biological systems, often with the goal of addressing ‘real-world’ problems.

In a feature article published in the open access journal eLife, an international team of experts led by Dr Bonnie Wintle and Dr Christian R. Boehm from the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, capture perspectives of industry, innovators, scholars, and the security community in the UK and US on what they view as the major emerging issues in the field.

Dr Wintle says: “The growth of the bio-based economy offers the promise of addressing global environmental and societal challenges, but as our paper shows, it can also present new kinds of challenges and risks. The sector needs to proceed with caution to ensure we can reap the benefits safely and securely.”

The report is intended as a summary and launching point for policy makers across a range of sectors to further explore those issues that may be relevant to them.

Among the issues highlighted by the report as being most relevant over the next five years are:

Artificial photosynthesis and carbon capture for producing biofuels

If technical hurdles can be overcome, such developments might contribute to the future adoption of carbon capture systems, and provide sustainable sources of commodity chemicals and fuel.

Enhanced photosynthesis for agricultural productivity

Synthetic biology may hold the key to increasing yields on currently farmed land – and hence helping address food security – by enhancing photosynthesis and reducing pre-harvest losses, as well as reducing post-harvest and post-consumer waste.

Synthetic gene drives

Gene drives promote the inheritance of preferred genetic traits throughout a species, for example to prevent malaria-transmitting mosquitoes from breeding. However, this technology raises questions about whether it may alter ecosystems [emphasis mine], potentially even creating niches where a new disease-carrying species or new disease organism may take hold.

Human genome editing

Genome engineering technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 offer the possibility to improve human lifespans and health. However, their implementation poses major ethical dilemmas. It is feasible that individuals or states with the financial and technological means may elect to provide strategic advantages to future generations.

Defence agency research in biological engineering

The areas of synthetic biology in which some defence agencies invest raise the risk of ‘dual-use’. For example, one programme intends to use insects to disseminate engineered plant viruses that confer traits to the target plants they feed on, with the aim of protecting crops from potential plant pathogens – but such technologies could plausibly also be used by others to harm targets.

In the next five to ten years, the authors identified areas of interest including:

Regenerative medicine: 3D printing body parts and tissue engineering

While this technology will undoubtedly ease suffering caused by traumatic injuries and a myriad of illnesses, reversing the decay associated with age is still fraught with ethical, social and economic concerns. Healthcare systems would rapidly become overburdened by the cost of replenishing body parts of citizens as they age and could lead new socioeconomic classes, as only those who can pay for such care themselves can extend their healthy years.

Microbiome-based therapies

The human microbiome is implicated in a large number of human disorders, from Parkinson’s to colon cancer, as well as metabolic conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. Synthetic biology approaches could greatly accelerate the development of more effective microbiota-based therapeutics. However, there is a risk that DNA from genetically engineered microbes may spread to other microbiota in the human microbiome or into the wider environment.

Intersection of information security and bio-automation

Advancements in automation technology combined with faster and more reliable engineering techniques have resulted in the emergence of robotic ‘cloud labs’ where digital information is transformed into DNA then expressed in some target organisms. This opens the possibility of new kinds of information security threats, which could include tampering with digital DNA sequences leading to the production of harmful organisms, and sabotaging vaccine and drug production through attacks on critical DNA sequence databases or equipment.

Over the longer term, issues identified include:

New makers disrupt pharmaceutical markets

Community bio-labs and entrepreneurial startups are customizing and sharing methods and tools for biological experiments and engineering. Combined with open business models and open source technologies, this could herald opportunities for manufacturing therapies tailored to regional diseases that multinational pharmaceutical companies might not find profitable. But this raises concerns around the potential disruption of existing manufacturing markets and raw material supply chains as well as fears about inadequate regulation, less rigorous product quality control and misuse.

Platform technologies to address emerging disease pandemics

Emerging infectious diseases—such as recent Ebola and Zika virus disease outbreaks—and potential biological weapons attacks require scalable, flexible diagnosis and treatment. New technologies could enable the rapid identification and development of vaccine candidates, and plant-based antibody production systems.

Shifting ownership models in biotechnology

The rise of off-patent, generic tools and the lowering of technical barriers for engineering biology has the potential to help those in low-resource settings, benefit from developing a sustainable bioeconomy based on local needs and priorities, particularly where new advances are made open for others to build on.

Dr Jenny Molloy comments: “One theme that emerged repeatedly was that of inequality of access to the technology and its benefits. The rise of open source, off-patent tools could enable widespread sharing of knowledge within the biological engineering field and increase access to benefits for those in developing countries.”

Professor Johnathan Napier from Rothamsted Research adds: “The challenges embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals will require all manner of ideas and innovations to deliver significant outcomes. In agriculture, we are on the cusp of new paradigms for how and what we grow, and where. Demonstrating the fairness and usefulness of such approaches is crucial to ensure public acceptance and also to delivering impact in a meaningful way.”

Dr Christian R. Boehm concludes: “As these technologies emerge and develop, we must ensure public trust and acceptance. People may be willing to accept some of the benefits, such as the shift in ownership away from big business and towards more open science, and the ability to address problems that disproportionately affect the developing world, such as food security and disease. But proceeding without the appropriate safety precautions and societal consensus—whatever the public health benefits—could damage the field for many years to come.”

The research was made possible by the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, the Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative (both at the University of Cambridge), and the Future of Humanity Institute (University of Oxford). It was based on a workshop co-funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation and the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A transatlantic perspective on 20 emerging issues in biological engineering by Bonnie C Wintle, Christian R Boehm, Catherine Rhodes, Jennifer C Molloy, Piers Millett, Laura Adam, Rainer Breitling, Rob Carlson, Rocco Casagrande, Malcolm Dando, Robert Doubleday, Eric Drexler, Brett Edwards, Tom Ellis, Nicholas G Evans, Richard Hammond, Jim Haseloff, Linda Kahl, Todd Kuiken, Benjamin R Lichman, Colette A Matthewman, Johnathan A Napier, Seán S ÓhÉigeartaigh, Nicola J Patron, Edward Perello, Philip Shapira, Joyce Tait, Eriko Takano, William J Sutherland. eLife; 14 Nov 2017; DOI: 10.7554/eLife.30247

This paper is open access and the editors have included their notes to the authors and the authors’ response.

You may have noticed that I highlighted a portion of the text concerning synthetic gene drives. Coincidentally I ran across a November 16, 2017 article by Ed Yong for The Atlantic where the topic is discussed within the context of a project in New Zealand, ‘Predator Free 2050’ (Note: A link has been removed),

Until the 13th century, the only land mammals in New Zealand were bats. In this furless world, local birds evolved a docile temperament. Many of them, like the iconic kiwi and the giant kakapo parrot, lost their powers of flight. Gentle and grounded, they were easy prey for the rats, dogs, cats, stoats, weasels, and possums that were later introduced by humans. Between them, these predators devour more than 26 million chicks and eggs every year. They have already driven a quarter of the nation’s unique birds to extinction.

Many species now persist only in offshore islands where rats and their ilk have been successfully eradicated, or in small mainland sites like Zealandia where they are encircled by predator-proof fences. The songs in those sanctuaries are echoes of the New Zealand that was.

But perhaps, they also represent the New Zealand that could be.

In recent years, many of the country’s conservationists and residents have rallied behind Predator-Free 2050, an extraordinarily ambitious plan to save the country’s birds by eradicating its invasive predators. Native birds of prey will be unharmed, but Predator-Free 2050’s research strategy, which is released today, spells doom for rats, possums, and stoats (a large weasel). They are to die, every last one of them. No country, anywhere in the world, has managed such a task in an area that big. The largest island ever cleared of rats, Australia’s Macquarie Island, is just 50 square miles in size. New Zealand is 2,000 times bigger. But, the country has committed to fulfilling its ecological moonshot within three decades.

In 2014, Kevin Esvelt, a biologist at MIT, drew a Venn diagram that troubles him to this day. In it, he and his colleagues laid out several possible uses for gene drives—a nascent technology for spreading designer genes through groups of wild animals. Typically, a given gene has a 50-50 chance of being passed to the next generation. But gene drives turn that coin toss into a guarantee, allowing traits to zoom through populations in just a few generations. There are a few natural examples, but with CRISPR, scientists can deliberately engineer such drives.

Suppose you have a population of rats, roughly half of which are brown, and the other half white. Now, imagine there is a gene that affects each rat’s color. It comes in two forms, one leading to brown fur, and the other leading to white fur. A male with two brown copies mates with a female with two white copies, and all their offspring inherit one of each. Those offspring breed themselves, and the brown and white genes continue cascading through the generations in a 50-50 split. This is the usual story of inheritance. But you can subvert it with CRISPR, by programming the brown gene to cut its counterpart and replace it with another copy of itself. Now, the rats’ children are all brown-furred, as are their grandchildren, and soon the whole population is brown.

Forget fur. The same technique could spread an antimalarial gene through a mosquito population, or drought-resistance through crop plants. The applications are vast, but so are the risks. In theory, gene drives spread so quickly and relentlessly that they could rewrite an entire wild population, and once released, they would be hard to contain. If the concept of modifying the genes of organisms is already distasteful to some, gene drives magnify that distaste across national, continental, and perhaps even global scales.

These excerpts don’t do justice to this thought-provoking article. If you have time, I recommend reading it in its entirety  as it provides some insight into gene drives and, with some imagination on the reader’s part, the potential for the other technologies discussed in the report.

One last comment, I notice that Eric Drexler is cited as on the report’s authors. He’s familiar to me as K. Eric Drexler, the author of the book that popularized nanotechnology in the US and other countries, Engines of Creation (1986) .

Nanotechnology and infinite risk: Global challenges report on 12 risks that threaten human civilisation

The Global Challenges Foundation recently released a report which lists 12 global risks (from the Global Challenges: 12 Risks ,that threaten human civilisation report webpage,

This report has, to the best of the authors’ knowledge, created the first list of global risks with impacts that for all practical purposes can be called infinite. It is also the first structured overview of key events related to such risks and has tried to provide initial rough quantifications for the probabilities of these impacts.

With such a focus it may surprise some readers to find that the report’s essential aim is to inspire action and dialogue as well as an increased use of the methodologies used for risk assessment.

The real focus is not on the almost unimaginable impacts of the risks the report outlines. Its fundamental purpose is to encourage global collaboration and to use this new category of risk as a driver for innovation.

The 12 global risks that threaten human civilisation are:

Current risks

1. Extreme Climate Change
2. Nuclear War
3. Ecological Catastrophe
4. Global Pandemic
5. Global System Collapse

Exogenic risks

6. Major Asteroid Impact
7. Supervolcano

Emerging risks

8. Synthetic Biology
9. Nanotechnology
10. Artificial Intelligence
11. Uncertain Risks

Global policy risk

12. Future Bad Global Governance

The report is fairly new as it was published in February 2015. Here’s a summary of the nanotechnology risk from the report‘s executive summary,

Atomically precise manufacturing, the creation of effective, high- throughput manufacturing processes that operate at the atomic or molecular level. It could create new products – such as smart or extremely resilient materials – and would allow many different groups or even individuals to manufacture a wide range of things. This could lead to the easy construction of large arsenals of conventional or more novel weapons made possible by atomically precise manufacturing. AI is the intelligence exhibited by machines or software, and the branch of computer science that develops machines and software with human-level intelligence. The field is often defined as “the study and design of intelligent agents”, systems that perceive their environment and act to maximise their chances of success. Such extreme intelligences could not easily be controlled (either by the groups creating them, or by some international regulatory regime), and would probably act to boost their own intelligence and acquire maximal resources for almost all initial AI motivations.

Of particular relevance is whether nanotechnology allows the construction of nuclear bombs. But many of the world’s current problems may be solvable with the manufacturing possibilities that nanotechnology would offer, such as depletion of natural resources, pollution, climate change, clean water and even poverty. Some have conjectured special self-replicating nanomachines which would be engineered to consume the entire environment. [grey goo and/or green goo scenarios; emphasis mine] The misuse of medical nanotechnology is another risk scenario. [p. 18 print version; p. 20 PDF]

I was a bit surprised to see the ‘goo’ scenarios referenced since Eric Drexler one of the participants and the person who first posted the ‘grey goo’ scenario (a green goo scenario was subsequently theorized by Robert Freitas)  has long tried to dissociate himself from it.

The report lists the academics and experts (including Drexler) who helped to produce the report,

Dr Nick Beckstead, Research Fellow, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford Martin School & Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford

Kennette Benedict, Executive Director and Publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Oliver Bettis, Pricing Actuary, Munich RE and Fellow of the Chartered Insurance Institute and the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Dr Eric Drexler, Academic Visitor, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford Martin School & Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford [emphasis mine]

Madeleine Enarsson , Transformative Catalyst, 21st Century Frontiers

Pan Jiahua, Director of the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS); Professor of economics at CASS; Vice-President Chinese Society for Ecological Economics; Member of the National Expert Panel on Climate Change and National Foreign Policy Advisory Committee, China

Jennifer Morgan, Founder & Co-Convener, The Finance Lab
James Martin Research Fellow, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford Martin School & Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford

Andrew Simms, Author, Fellow at the New Economics Foundation and Chief Analyst at Global Witness

Nathan Wolfe, Director of Global Viral and the Lorry I. Lokey Visiting Professor in Human Biology at Stanford University

Liang Yin, Investment Consultant at Towers Watson [p. 1 print versioin; p. 3 PDF]

While I don’t recognize any names other that Drexler’s, it’s an interesting list albeit with a preponderance of individuals associated with the University of Oxford .

The Feb. 16, 2015 Global Challenges Foundation press release announcing the risk report includes a brief description of the foundation and, I gather, a sister organization at Oxford University,

About the Global Challenges Foundation
The Global Challenges Foundation works to raise awareness of the greatest threats facing humanity and how these threats are linked to poverty and the rapid growth in global population. The Global Challenges Foundation was founded in 2011 by investor László Szombatfalvy.

About Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute
The Future of Humanity Institute is a multidisciplinary research institute at the University of Oxford. It enables a select set of leading intellectuals to bring the tools of
mathematics, philosophy, and science to bear on big-picture questions about humanity and its prospects. The Institute belongs to the Faculty of Philosophy and is affiliated with
the Oxford Martin School.

The report is 212 pp (PDF), Happy Reading!

Nano-solutions for the 21st century, University of Oxford Martin School, and Eric Drexler

Eric Drexler (aka, K. Eric Drexler) is a big name in the world of nanotechnology as per my May 6, 2013 posting abut his talk in Seattle as part of a tour promoting his latest book,

Here’s more from the University Bookstore’s event page,

Eric Drexler is the founding father of nanotechnology, the science of engineering on a molecular level—and the science thats about to change the world. Already, says Drexler, author of Radical Abundance, scientists have constructed prototypes for circuit boards built of millions of precisely arranged atoms. This kind of atomic precision promises to change the way we make things (cleanly, inexpensively, and on a global scale), the way we buy things (solar arrays could cost no more than cardboard and aluminum foil, with laptops about the same)—and the very foundations of our economy and environment.

… Drexler’s latest effort, Radical Abundance, here’s what he had to say about the book in a July 21, 2011 posting on his Meta Modern blog,

Radical Abundance will integrate and extend several themes that I’ve touched on in Metamodern, but will go much further. The topics include:

  • The nature of science and engineering, and the prospects for a deep transformation in the material basis of civilization.
  • Why all of this is surprisingly understandable.
  • A personal narrative of the emergence of the molecular nanotechnology concept and the turbulent history of progress and politics that followed
  • The quiet rise of macromolecular nanotechnologies, their power, and the rapidly advancing state of the art
  • ….

About the same time he was promoting his book, Radical Abundance, the University of Oxford Martin School released a report written by Drexler and co-authored with Dennis Pamplin,, which is featured in an Oct. 28, 2013 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

The world faces unprecedented global challenges related to depleting natural resources, pollution, climate change, clean water, and poverty. These problems are directly linked to the physical characteristics of our current technology base for producing energy and material products. Deep and pervasive changes in this technology base can address these global problems at their most fundamental, physical level, by changing both the products and the means of production used by 21st century civilization. The key development is advanced, atomically precise manufacturing (APM).

This report (“Nano-solutions for the 21st century”; pdf) examines the potential for nanotechnology to enable deeply transformative production technologies that can be developed through a series of advances that build on current nanotechnology research.

Coincidentally or not, Eric Drexler is writing a series of posts for the Guardian about nanotechnology and the future. Here’s a sampling from his Oct. 28, 2013 post on the Guardian’s Small World Nanotech blog sponsored by NanOpinion,

In my initial post in this series, I asked, “What if nanotechnology could deliver on its original promise, not only new, useful, nanoscale products, but a new, transformative production technology able to displace industrial production technologies and bring radical improvements in production cost, scope, and resource efficiency?”

The potential implications are immense, not just for computer chips and other nanotechnologies, but for issues on the scale of global development and climate change. My first post outlined the nature of this technology, atomically precise manufacturing (APM), comparing it with today’s 3D printing and digital nanoelectronics.

My second post placed APM-level technologies in the context of today’s million-atom atomically precise fabrication technologies and outlined the direction of research, an open path, but by no means short, that leads to larger atomically precise structures, a growing range of product materials and a wider range of functional devices, culminating in the factory-in-a-box technologies of APM.

Together, these provided an introduction to the modern view of APM-level technologies. Here, I’d like to say a few words about the implications of APM-level technologies for human life and global society.

At the bottom of the posting, this is noted,

Eric Drexler, often called “the father of nanotechnology”, is at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, University of Oxford. His most recent book is Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization

The Oxford Martin School of Oxford University and the Research Center for Sustainable Development of the China Academy of Social Sciences recently released a report on atomically precise manufacturing, Nano-solutions for the 21st century. The report discusses the status and prospects for atomically precise manufacturing (APM) together with some of its implications for economic and international affairs.

Publicity is a beautiful thing, especially when you can tie so many things together. Drexler, his book, the report, and the Guardian’s special section sponsored by NanOpinion.

Getting back to the report, Nano-solutions for the 21st century, I notice that there’s been a lot of collaboration with Chinese researchers and institutions if the acknowledgements are a way to judge these things,

This work results from an extensive process that has included interaction and contributions by scientists,
governments, philanthropists, and forward-thinkers around the world. Over the last three years workshops
have been conducted in China, India, US, Europe, Japan, and more to discuss these findings and their
global implications. Draft findings have also been presented at many meetings, from UNFCCC events to
specialist conferences. The wealth of feedback received from this project has been of utmost importance
and we see the resulting report as a collaboration project than as the work of two individuals.

The authors wish to thank all those who have participated in the process and extend particular thanks
to China and India, especially Institute for Urban & Environmental Studies, Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences (CASS) and the team from the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology (NCNST)
including Dr. ZHI Linjie, Dr. TANG Zhiyong, Dr. WEI Zhixiang and Dr. HAN Baohang. Professor Linjie Zhi
was also kind enough to translate the abstract. In India the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and CII – ITC Centre
of Excellence for Sustainable Development where among those providing valuable input.

This report is only a start of what we hope is a vital international discussion about one of the most
interesting fields of the 21st century. We would therefor like to extend special thanks to the Chinese
Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and The Oxford Martin School
that are examples of world leading institutions that support further discussions in this important area.

Dr. Eric Drexler and Dennis Pamlin worked together to make this report a reality. Drexler, currently at the
Oxford Martin School, provided technical leadership and served as primary author of the report. Pamlin
contributed through discussions, structure and input regarding overall trends in relation to the key aspects
of report. Both authors want to thank Dr. Stephanie Corchnoy who contributed to the research and final
editing. As always the sole responsibility for the content of report lies with the authors.

Eric Drexler
Dennis Pamlin (p. 1)

I find the specific call outs to China, India, and Japan quite interesting since any European partners are covered under the term for the entire continent, Europe. I haven’t read the report but for what it’s worth here’s the abstract,

The report has five sections:
1. Nanotechnology and global challenge
The first section discusses the basics of advanced, atomically precise nanotechnology and
explains how current and future solutions can help address global challenges. Key concepts
are presented and different kinds of nanotechnology are discussed and compared.
2. The birth of Nanotechnology
The second section discusses the development of nanotechnology, from the first vision
fifty years ago, expanding via a scientific approach to atomically precise manufacturing
thirty years ago, initial demonstrations of principle twenty years ago, to the last decade
of of accelerating success in developing key enabling technologies. The important role
of emerging countries is discussed, with China as a leading example, together with an
overview of the contrast between the promise and the results to date.
3. Delivery of transformative nanotechnologies
Here the different aspects of APM that are needed to enable breakthrough advances in
productive technologies are discussed. The necessary technology base can be developed
through a series of coordinated advances along strategically chosen lines of research.
4. Accelerating progress toward advanced nanotechnologies
This section discusses research initiatives that can enable and support advanced
nanotechnology, on paths leading to APM, including integrated cross-disciplinary research
and Identification of high-value applications and their requirements.
5. Possible next steps
The final section provides a short summary of the opportunities and the possibilities to
address institutional challenges of planning, resource allocation, evaluation, transparency,
and collaboration as nanotechnology moves into its next phase of development: nanosystems engineering.

The report in its entirety provides a comprehensive overview of the current global condition, as well as
notable opportunities and challenges. This content is divided into five independent sections that can
be read and understood individually, allowing those with specific interests to access desired information
more directly and easily. With all five sections taken together, the report as a whole describes low-
cost actions that can help solve critical problems, create opportunities, reduce security risks, and help
countries join and accelerate cooperative development of this global technological revolution. Of
particular importance, several considerations are highlighted that strongly favor a policy of transparent,
international, collaborative development.

One final comment, I’m not familiar with Drexler’s co-author, Dennis Pamlin so went searching for some details. Here’s a self-description from the About page on his eponymous website,

Dennis Pamlin is an entrepreneur and founder of 21st Century Frontiers. He works with companies, governments and NGOs as a strategic economic, technology and innovation advisor. His background is in engineering, industrial economy and marketing. Mr Pamlin worked as Global Policy Advisor for WWF from 1999 to 2009. During his tenure, Pamlin initiated WWFs Trade and Investment Programme work in the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and led the work with companies (especially high-tech companies such as ICT) as solution providers.

Pamlin is currently an independent consultant as well as Director for the Low Carbon Leaders Project under the UN Global Compact and is a Senior Associate at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Current work includes work to establish a web platform to promote transformative mobile applications, creating the first Low Carbon City Development Index (LCCDI) make transformative low-carbon ICT part of the global climate discussions, leading the Global ICT companies work (through GeSI) to establish the ICT sector as a global solution provider when it comes to resource efficient solutions, advising the EU on how public procurement can increase innovation and the uptake of transformative solutions.

Pamlin is also exploring how new ideas can be financed through web-tools/apps and the cultural tensions between the “west” and the re-emerging economies (with focus on China and India).

He is also leading work to develop methodologies for companies and cities to measure and report their positive impacts, focus on climate, water and poverty, but other areas are also under development.

I also found this on Pamlin’s LinkedIn profile,

Entrepreneur, advisor and transformative explorer

International Affairs


21st century Frontiers,
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS),
Global Challenges Foundation



It seems to me there’s a ‘sustainability and nanotechnology theme being implied in the introduction to the report (“The world faces unprecedented global challenges related to depleting natural resources, pollution, climate change, clean water, and poverty.”)  and I’m certainly inferring it from my reading of Pamlin’s background and interests and this phrase in the acknowledgements: “… Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and CII – ITC Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Development where among those providing valuable input … .”

Oddly, I last mentioned nanotechnology and sustainability In an Oct. 28, 2013 posting about a nanotechnology-enabled consumer products database where I also made note of the Second Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization Conference whose website can be found here.

The UK’s Futurefest and an interview with Sue Thomas

Futurefest with “some of the planet’s most radical thinkers, makers and performers” is taking place in London next weekend on Sept. 28 – 29, 2013 and  I am very pleased to be featuring an interview with one of  Futurefest’s speakers, Sue Thomas who amongst many other accomplishments was also the founder of the  Creative Writing and New Media programme at De Montfort University, UK, where I got my master’s degree.

Here’s Sue,


Sue Thomas was formerly Professor of New Media at De Montfort University. Now she writes and consults on digital well-being. Her new book ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’ explains how contact with the natural world can help soothe our connected lives.http://www.suethomas.net @suethomas

  • I understand you are participating in Futurefest’s SciFi Writers’ Parliament; could you explain what that is and what the nature of your participation will be?

The premise of the session is to invite Science Fiction writers to play with the idea that they have been given the power to realise the kinds of new societies and cultures they imagine in their books. Each of us will present a brief proposal for the audience to vote on. The panel will be chaired by Robin Ince, a well-known comedian, broadcaster, and science enthusiast. The presenters are Cory Doctorow, Pat Cadigan, Ken MacLeod, Charles Stross, Roz Kaveney and myself.

  • Do you have expectations for who will be attending ‘Parliament’ and will they be participating as well as watching?

I’m expecting the audience for FutureFest http://www.futurefest.org/ to be people interested in future forecasting across the four themes of the event: Well-becoming, In the imaginarium,  We are all gardeners now, and The value of everything. There are plenty of opportunities for them to participate, not just in discussing and voting in panels like ours, but also in The Daily Future, a Twitter game, and Playify, which will run around and across the weekend. 

  • How are you preparing for ‘Parliament’?

 I will propose A Global Environmental Protection Act for Cyberspace The full text of the proposal is  on my blog here http://suethomasnet.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/futurefest/ It’s based on the thinking and research around my new book Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace http://suethomasnet.wordpress.com/technobiophilia/ which coincidentally comes out in the UK two days before FutureFest. In the runup to the event I’ll also be gathering peoples’ views and refining my thoughts.

sue thomas_technobiophilia

  • Is there any other event you’re looking forward to in particular and why would that be?

The whole of FutureFest looks great and I’m excited about being there all weekend to enjoy it. The following week I’m doing a much smaller but equally interesting event at my local Cafe Scientifique, which is celebrating its first birthday with a talk from me about Technobiophilia. I’ve only recently moved to Bournemouth so this will be a great chance to meet the kinds of interesting local people who come to Cafe Scientifique in all parts of the world. http://suethomasnet.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/cafe-scientifique/


I’ll also be launching the book in North America with an online lecture in the Metaliteracy MOOC at SUNY Empire State University. The details are yet to be released but it’s booked for 18 November. http://metaliteracy.cdlprojects.com/index.html

  • Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’m also doing another event at FutureFest which might be of interest, especially to people interested in the future of death. It’s called xHumed and this is what it’s about: If we can archive and store our personal data, media, DNA and brain patterns, the question of whether we can bring back the dead is almost redundant. The right question is should we? It is the year 2050AD and great thought leaders from history have been “xHumed”. What could possibly go wrong? Through an interactive performance Five10Twelve will provoke and encourage the audience to consider the implications via soundbites and insights from eminent experts – both living and dead. I’m expecting some lively debate!

Thank you,  Sue for bringing Futurefest to life and congratulations on your new book!

You can find out more about Futurefest and its speakers here at the Futurefest website. I found Futurefest’s ticket webpage (which is associated with the National Theatre) a little more  informative about the event as a whole,

Some of the planet’s most radical thinkers, makers and performers are gathering in East London this September to create an immersive experience of what the world will feel like over the next few decades.

From the bright and uplifting to the dark and dystopian, FutureFest will present a weekend of compelling talks, cutting-edge shows, and interactive performances that will inspire and challenge you to change the future.

Enter the wormhole in Shoreditch Town Hall on the weekend of 28 and 29 September 2013 and experience the next phase of being human.

FutureFest is split into four sessions, Saturday Morning, Saturday Afternoon, Sunday Morning and Sunday Afternoon. You can choose to come to one, two, three or all sessions. They all have a different flavour, but each one will immerse you deep in the future.

Please note that FutureFest is a living, breathing festival so sessions are subject to change. We’ll keep you up to date on our FutureFest website.

Saturday Morning will feature The Blind Giant author Nick Harkaway, bionic man Bertolt Meyer and techno-cellist Peter Gregson. There will also be secret agents, villages of the future and a crowd-sourced experiment in futurology with some dead futurists.

Saturday Afternoon has forecaster Tamar Kasriel helping to futurescape your life, and gamemaker Alex Fleetwood showing us what life will be like in the Gameful century. We’ve got top political scientists David Runciman and Diane Coyle exploring the future of democracy. There will also be a mass-deception experiment, more secret agents and a look forward to what the weather will be like in 2100.

Sunday Morning sees Sermons of the Future. Taking the pulpit will be Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, social entrepreneur and model Lily Cole, and Astronomer Royal Martin Rees. Meanwhile the comedian Robin Ince will be chairing a Science Fiction Parliament with top SF authors, Roberto Unger will be analysing the future of religion and one of the world’s top chefs, Andoni Aduriz, will be exploring how food will make us feel in the future.

Sunday Afternoon will feature a futuristic take on the Sunday lunch, with food futurologist Morgaine Gaye inviting you for lunch in the Gastrodome with insects and 3D meat print-outs on the menu. Smari McCarthy, founder of Iceland’s Pirate Party and Wikileaks worker, will be exploring life in a digitised world, and Charlie Leadbeater, Diane Coyle and Mark Stevenson will be imagining cities and states of the future.

I noticed that a few Futurefest speakers have been featured here:

Eric Drexler, ‘Mr. Nano’, was last mentioned in a May 6, 2013 posting about a talk he was giving in Seattle, Washington to promote his new book, Radical Abundance.

Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, was mentioned in a Nov. 26, 3012 posting about the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk (humans relative to robots).

Bertolt Meyer, a young researcher from Zurich University and a lifelong user of prosthetic technology, in a Jan. 30, 2013 posting about building a bionic man.

Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer, who ran afoul of James Moore, then Minister of Canadian Heritage and now Minister of Industry Canada, who accused him of being a ‘radical extremists’  prior to new copyright legislation  for Canadians, was mentioned in a June 25, 2010 posting.

Wish I could be at London’s Futurefest in lieu of that I will wish the organizers and participants all the best.

* On a purely cosmetic note, on Dec. 5, 2013, I changed the paragraph format in the responses.

Eric Drexler gives May 9, 2013 talk in Seattle, WA

Thanks to the Foresight Institute blog’s  May 4, 2013 post where I found out that K. Eric Drexler, author of the 1986 Engines of Creation, which introduced the notion *of  nanotechnology to a wider audience, is giving a book tour to support his latest effort, Radical Abundance. Drexler’s own blog, Meta Modern offers detail about the speaking tour in a May 3, 2013 post (I’m excerpting information about the Seattle talk),

Thursday, May 9th, Seattle, WA, 7:30-9:00 pm

Town Hall with University Bookstore, 1119 8th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98101. 40-50 minute talk, audience Q&A, and book signing.

Here’s more from the University Bookstore’s event page,

Eric Drexler is the founding father of nanotechnology, the science of engineering on a molecular level—and the science thats about to change the world. Already, says Drexler, author of Radical Abundance, scientists have constructed prototypes for circuit boards built of millions of precisely arranged atoms. This kind of atomic precision promises to change the way we make things (cleanly, inexpensively, and on a global scale), the way we buy things (solar arrays could cost no more than cardboard and aluminum foil, with laptops about the same)—and the very foundations of our economy and environment.

Presented by Town Hall and University Book Store as part of The Seattle Science Lectures, sponsored by Microsoft. Series media sponsorship provided by KPLU.

Tickets are $5 at www.townhallseattle.org [???] or 888.377.4510 and at the door beginning at 6:30pm. Town Hall members receive priority seating. Downstairs at Town Hall; enter on Seneca Street.

I found the ticket page for the Drexler event here. This is a US speaking tour where Drexler will also be appearing in Albany, New York and in Los Angeles, CA.

While Drexler is important, I would not describe him as the founding father of nanotechnology  since there are many people who’ve played key roles and, in some cases, years before Drexler wrote the account of nanotechnology which helped popularize it in the US. (Note: He does not appear to make that claim himself, see the About the Author page on his blog.)

Getting back to Drexler’s latest effort, Radical Abundance, here’s what he had to say about the book in a July 21, 2011 posting on his Meta Modern blog,

Radical Abundance will integrate and extend several themes that I’ve touched on in Metamodern, but will go much further. The topics include:

  • The nature of science and engineering, and the prospects for a deep transformation in the material basis of civilization.
  • Why all of this is surprisingly understandable.
  • A personal narrative of the emergence of the molecular nanotechnology concept and the turbulent history of progress and politics that followed
  • The quiet rise of macromolecular nanotechnologies, their power, and the rapidly advancing state of the art
  • ….

The book’s publication date is May 7, 2013. I have tried to find a general website where the book can be purchased but increasingly I am directed to Canadian-specific sites where the prices and shipping information are targeted to my location. The book can be purchased from Dexler’s publisher is PublicAffairs or from Amazon.

* The preposition ‘to’ corrected to ‘of’ on Sept. 20, 2013.

In depth and one year later—the nanotechnology bombings in Mexico

Last year in an Aug. 11, 2011 post I covered some stories about terrorism and nanotechnology in the aftermath of a major bombing in Mexico where two scientists were injured. Leigh Phillips has written a substantive news feature focusing largely on the situation in Mexico.

From the Aug. 29, 2012 news feature (open access) in the journal Nature,

Nature assesses the aftermath of a series of nanotechnology-lab bombings in Mexico — and asks how the country became a target of eco-anarchists.

The shoe-box-sized package was addressed to Armando Herrera Corral. It stated that he was the recipient of an award and it was covered in official-looking stamps. Herrera, a computer scientist at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico City, shook the box a number of times, and something solid jiggled inside. What could it be? He was excited and a little nervous — so much so, that he walked down the hall to the office of a colleague, robotics researcher Alejandro Aceves López, and asked Aceves to open it for him.

Aceves sat down at his desk to tear the box open. So when the 20-centimetre-long pipe bomb inside exploded, on 8 August 2011, Aceves took the full force in his chest. Metal pierced one of his lungs. “He was in intensive care. He was really bad,” says Herrera’s brother Gerardo, a theoretical physicist at the nearby Centre for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (Cinvestav). Armando Herrera Corral, who was standing nearby when the bomb went off, escaped with a burst eardrum and burns to his legs.

As was reported at the time, an eco-anarchist group calling itself ‘Individuals Tending Towards (or To) Savagery’ laid claim to this ‘achievement’.

While there have been attacks elsewhere*, Mexico has experienced more attacks and more violence and the impact is being felt personally and institutionally,

One year on from the bombing at Monterrey Tec, the repercussions are still being felt. Armando Herrera Corral and Aceves will not speak to Nature about what happened. “It’s too sensitive, you understand?” is all Aceves would say. Herrera has left his job as director of the university’s technology park and is now head of postgraduate studies. Other Mexican universities with nanotechnology research programmes have evacuated campuses in response to bomb threats, and universities across the country have introduced stringent security measures. Some researchers are anxious for their own safety; some are furious about being targets. But all the researchers that Nature spoke to in Mexico are adamant that the attacks will not discourage them from their research or dissuade students from entering the field.

As for reasons why Mexico, to date, has experienced more attacks than other countries,

Reporting by Nature suggests that several broad trends have come together to precipitate the violence. Over the past decade, Mexico has invested heavily in nanotechnology relative to other developing countries, because it sees the field as a route to economic development; mainstream green groups worldwide have grown increasingly concerned about nanotechnology’s health and environmental risks; and there has been a shift towards extreme ideas and tactics among radical environmentalists critical of technology. In Mexico, this has been set against a general background of growing violence and political upheaval.

According to Phillips’ article there were three incidents in 2011 (April, May, and August, respectively)  in Mexico as compared to one attempted attack in Switzerland in 2010. This year, there has been one attack in Europe as I noted in my May 29, 2012 post which featured Andy Coghlan’s article for New Scientist on rising violence against scientists. From Coghlan’s article,

It’s like something out of Kafka. Anti-science anarchists in Italy appear to be ramping up their violent and frankly surreal campaign. Having claimed responsibility for shooting the boss of a nuclear engineering company in Genoa, the group has vowed to target Finmeccanica, the Italian aerospace and defence giant.

In  a diatribe sent on 11 May to Corriere della Sera newspaper on 11 May, the Olga Cell of the Informal Anarchist Federation International Revolutionary Front said it shot Roberto Adinolfi, head of Ansaldo Nucleare, in the leg four days earlier. “With this action of ours, we return to you a tiny part of the suffering that you, man of science, are pouring into this world,” the statement said. It also pledged a “campaign of struggle against Finmeccanica, the murderous octopus”.

Coghlan suggests that the focus is being shifted from nanotechnology to nuclear science in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011.

Philips takes a different tack in the Nature article,

As nanotechnology has been growing in Latin America, a violent eco-anarchist philosophy has taken root among certain radical groups in Mexico. Mexican intelligence services believe that the perpetrators of the bombings last year were mainly young and well educated: their communiqués are littered with references to English-language texts unlikely to have been translated into Spanish.[emphasis mine] Intelligence services say that the eco-anarchist groups have been around for about a decade. They started off protesting against Mexico’s economic and political system by setting off small explosives that destroyed bank machines.But around 2008, certain groups began to adopt an ‘anarcho-primitivist’ perspective. (Locally, they are called primativistas, says Gerardo Herrera Corral.) This philosophy had won little notice until the past few years, but with increasing media reports of looming global climate disaster, some radical green activists have latched on to it. California-based environmental writer Derrick Jensen — whose popular books call for an underground network of ‘Deep Green Resistance’ cells — is a highly influential figure in this otherwise leaderless movement, which argues that industrial civilization is responsible for environmental destruction and must be dismantled.

In their writings, anarcho-primitivist groups often express deep anxiety about a range of advanced research subjects, including genetic engineering, cloning, synthetic biology, geoengineering and neurosciences. But it is nanotechnology, a common subject for science-fiction doomsday scenarios, that most clearly symbolizes to them the power of modern science run amok. “Nanotechnology is the furthest advancement that may yet exist in the history of anthropocentric progress,” the ITS wrote in its first communiqué, in April 2011.

If the perpetrators are young and well-educated then the comment in this excerpt from the article does not follow logically and Phillips does not explain this seeming disparity,

In Mexico, the existing social and political climate may have helped light the fuse, says Miguel Méndez Rojas, coordinator of the department of nanotechnology and molecular engineering at the University of the Americas Puebla in Mexico. He says that the bombings cannot be understood outside the context of what he describes as a dangerous cocktail of poverty and poor education, widespread ignorance of science, ongoing social upheaval and a climate of violence. [emphasis mine]

Phillips’ article goes on to discuss some of the more moderate groups including the Canada-based ETC Group, which has an office in Mexico,

Some researchers in Mexico say that more-moderate groups are stoking fears about nanotechnology. One such body is the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC, pronounced et cetera), a small but vocal non-profit organization based in Ottawa, Canada, which was one of the first to raise concerns about nanotechnology and has to a large extent framed the international discussion. Silvia Ribeiro, the group’s Latin America director, based in Mexico City, says that the organization has no links to the ITS. The bombings were a “sick development”, she says. “These kinds of attacks — they are benefiting the development of nanotechnology,” she says. “It polarized the discussion. Do you want nanotech or the bomb?”

ETC wants to see a moratorium on all nanotechnology research, says Ribeiro, who is the lead author on many of the group’s reports criticizing nanotechnology research and commercialization. She says that there have not been enough toxicological studies on engineered nanoparticles, and that no government has developed a regulatory regime that explicitly addresses risk at the nanoscale.

However, ETC also infuriates researchers by issuing warnings of a more speculative nature. For example, it has latched on to the concept of ‘grey goo’ — self-replicating nanorobots run wild — that was raised in the book Engines of Creation (Doubleday, 1986) by nanotechnology engineer Eric Drexler. In ETC’s primer on nanoscale technologies, it says that the “likely future threat is that the merger of living and non-living matter will result in hybrid organisms and products that are not easy to control and behave in unpredictable ways”.

Ribeiro has also criticized genetic modification and vaccination against human papillomavirus in a weekly column in La Jornada. Méndez Rojas says that ETC “promotes beliefs, but they are not based on facts, and we need a public discussion of the facts”.

The impression I’ve had from reading ETC materials is that they are trying to repeat the success they enjoyed with the GMO (genetically modified organisms) and frankenfood campaign and they’d dearly love to whip up some strong feelings about nanotechnology in aid of more regulation.

I’m not a big ETC fan but I do have to note that their research is solid, once you get past the annoying ‘smart ass’ or juvenile attitude in the literature. Yes, they have an agenda but that’s standard. Everyone has an agenda so you always have to check more than one source.  When you analyze it, Phillips’ article is just as emotionally manipulative as the ETC Group’s communications. Including the ETC Group with the eco-anarchists in an article about terrorism and nanotechnology is equivalent to including the journal Nature with North Korea in an article about right-wing, repressive institutions framed from beginning to end to prove a somewhat elusive point.

Scientists in general seem to recognize that there are some legitimate concerns being expressed by the ETC Group and others,

Most nanotechnology researchers acknowledge that some areas of their work raise legitimate environmental, health and safety concerns. The most important response, says Gerardo Herrera Corral, is for scientists to engage with the public to address and dispel concerns. Herrera is head of Mexico’s only experiment at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, and he points to how CERN dealt with public fears that its Large Hadron Collider could create a black hole that would swallow Earth. “We set up a committee to deal with this. We looked into the real dangers. There were journal articles and we answered all the e-mails we got from people. I mean top-level physicists answering thousands of e-mails.”

“But this is work we should all be doing,” says Herrera. “Even if it’s extra work on top of all the other things we have to do. It’s just part of our job now.”

I like the idea of high level scientists taking the time to answer my questions and I imagine others feel the same way, which may go a long way in explaining why CERN (European Particle Physics Laboratory) has acquired such good will internationally.

Overall, I suspect Phillips is a little over-invested in Mexico’s nanotechnology terrorism. Three incidents in one year suggests something deeply disturbing (and devastating if you are the target) but in an international context, there were only three incidents. If you add up all of the nanotechnology incidents cited in Phillips’ article, there are three bombings (Mexico), one attempted bombing (Switzerland), a successful arson attempt (Mexico), and a few cancelled public debates (France) from 2009 – Fall 2012.

I am inclined to Coghlan’s argument that there is a disturbing trend toward anti-science violence and, it seems to me, it is largely unfocused, nanotechnology here, nuclear science there, biotechnology everywhere, and who knows what else or where else next?

ETA Feb. 21, 2013: Leigh Phillips contacted me to mention that there was a May 28, 2012 article for Nature, Anarchists attack science, which preceded Coghlan’s article for New Scientist and to which Coghlan provides a link. Phillips’ preceding article was subtitled, Armed extremists are targeting nuclear and nanotechnology workers. Phillips opens with the then recent attack on a nuclear engineering executive and subsequently focuses on attacks in the nanotechnology sector.

* ‘While there have been other attacks ‘ changed to ‘While there have been attacks elsewhere’, on Aug. 9, 2015.

Nano’s grey goo and the animation series Futurama

You never know where you’re going to find nanotechnology. Most recently I found it in a review of the first few episodes of the animated US tv series, Futurama. Alasdair Wilkins recently offered a few thoughts about a recent ‘nanotechnology-influenced’ episode Benderama. From Wilkins’s June 24, 2011 commentary,

“Benderama” is an example of an episode type that pretty much only Futurama is capable of doing: taking an outlandish but vaguely plausible scientific idea and letting that guide the story. Some all-time great episodes have come from this approach: “The Farnsworth Parabox” did this with alternate universes, Bender’s Big Score used time paradoxes (or the lack thereof), and “The Prisoner of Benda” focused on mind-switching. This time around, the topic is the grey goo scenario of nanotechnology, as Bender gains the ability to create two smaller duplicates of himself, who in turn can each create two smaller duplicates of themselves, who in turn…well, you get the idea. Also, the crew deals with Patton Oswalt’s hideous space giant, who can only take so much mockery of his appearance.

The business about smaller duplicates creating smaller duplicates is very reminiscent of Waldo, the story by Robert Heinlein which according to Colin Milburn influenced the part about creating smaller and smaller hands in Richard Feynman’s famous 1959 talk, There’s plenty of room at the bottom. From a transcript of Feynman’s talk (scroll down 3/4 of the way),

A hundred tiny hands

When I make my first set of slave “hands” at one-fourth scale, I am going to make ten sets. I make ten sets of “hands,” and I wire them to my original levers so they each do exactly the same thing at the same time in parallel. Now, when I am making my new devices one-quarter again as small, I let each one manufacture ten copies, so that I would have a hundred “hands” at the 1/16th size.

The ‘grey goo’ scenario was first proposed by K. Eric Drexler in his 1986 book, The Engines of Creation. He has distanced himself from some of his original assertions about ‘grey goo’ and there is still debate as to the plausibility of the  scenario.

From a more technical perspective, Feynman, Heinlein and Benderama present a top-down engineering scenario where one continually makes things smaller and smaller as opposed to the increasingly popular bottom-up engineering scenario where one mimics biological processes in an effort to promote self-assembly.

I’m not sure I’d call the science in the episode, ‘outlandish but plausible’ as it seems old-fashioned to me both with regard to the science and the humour. Still the episode seems to offer some  gentle fun on a topic that usually lends itself to ‘end of the earth’ scenarios so it’s nice to see the change in tone.

UK science debate; nanotechnology narratives and Richard Feynman; buckyball game

After Friday’s posting about Canada’s political parties and their science policies (in most cases, a lack of) imagine my surprise on finding out that the UK has enjoyed a Jan. 13, 2010 debate on science (I believe there’s another one coming up  in March) featuring two shadow ministers and the current Minister for Science and Innovation.  It’s organized by the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK (CASE). Thanks to the Pasco Phronesis blog for pointing the way.

I have watched about 1/3 of the video for the debate and, as you’d expect, the politicians are carefully avoiding specifics, still they are discussing science policy. The focus in the bits I watched was on funding and the role of science in ensuring the UK’s future global competitiveness. You can go here to find the debate video and articles and blogs about it.

Coincidentally, the US President’s Office on Science and Technology Policy (Jan.20.10 correction: the report was released by the National Science Board) has recently (Jan.15.10) released the Science Engineering Indicators (Jan.20.10 correction: Science and Engineering Indicators 2010). From the news item on Science Daily,

“The data begin to tell a worrisome story,” said Kei Koizumi, assistant director for federal research and development (R&D)in the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Calling SEI 2010 a “State of the Union on science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” he noted that quot; [sic]U.S. dominance has eroded significantly.”

In terms of R&D expenditures as a share of economic output, while Japan has surpassed the U.S. for quite some time, South Korea is now in the lead–ahead of the U.S. and Japan. And why does this matter? Investment in R&D is a major driver of innovation, which builds on new knowledge and technologies, contributes to national competitiveness and furthers social welfare. R&D expenditures indicate the priority given to advancing science and technology (S&T) relative to other national goals.

On other fronts, I’ve come across more discussion about the nanotechnology ‘narrative’ and the anniversary of Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk, There’s plenty of room at the bottom (first mentioned in this blog here and here).  Richard Jones on his blog Soft Machines provides more depth to the story and suggests that the view which has K. Eric Drexler popularizing Feynman’s ideas (I had fallen into that camp) shortchanges Drexler. I must admit I did not recognize the importance of Drexler’s emphasis on biology in his vision in contrast with Feynman’s vision. You can read more about Richard Jones’ take on the matter here. I filched this link to yet another take on the matter (Feynman failed to recognize the importance of chemistry) from the comments section of Jones’ posting.

It can be tempting to view all this wrangling as a waste of time but somewhere in all of this is an attempt to make sense of how we understand and know things. Histories are important not because they tell us about the past but because they tell us how we got here.

I found this story and video about a Buckyball game on Boing Boing. For anyone who’s not familiar with buckyballs, go here.

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.