Tag Archives: Sense about Science

Algorithms in decision-making: a government inquiry in the UK

Yesterday’s (Feb. 28, 2017) posting about the newly launched Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative grew too big to include interesting tidbits such as this one from Sense about Science, (from a Feb. 28, 2017 announcement received via email),

The House of Commons science and technology select committee announced
today that it will launch an inquiry into the use of algorithms in
decision-making […].

Our campaigns and policy officer Dr Stephanie Mathisen brought this
important and under-scrutinised issue to the committee as part of their
#MyScienceInquiry initiative; so fantastic news that they are taking up
the call.

A Feb. 28, 2017 UK House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee press release gives more details about the inquiry,

The Science and Technology Committee is launching a new inquiry into the use of algorithms in public and business decision making.

In an increasingly digital world, algorithms are being used to make decisions in a growing range of contexts. From decisions about offering mortgages and credit cards to sifting job applications and sentencing criminals, the impact of algorithms is far reaching.

How an algorithm is formulated, its scope for error or correction, the impact it may have on an individual—and their ability to understand or challenge that decision—are increasingly relevant questions.

This topic was pitched to the Committee by Dr Stephanie Mathisen (Sense about Science) through the Committee’s ‘My Science Inquiry’ open call for inquiry suggestions, and has been chosen as the first subject for the Committee’s attention following that process. It follows the Committee’s recent work on Robotics and AI, and its call for a standing Commission on Artificial Intelligence.

Submit written evidence

The Committee would welcome written submissions by Friday 21 April 2017 on the following points:

  • The extent of current and future use of algorithms in decision-making in Government and public bodies, businesses and others, and the corresponding risks and opportunities;
  • Whether ‘good practice’ in algorithmic decision-making can be identified and spread, including in terms of:
    —  The scope for algorithmic decision-making to eliminate, introduce or amplify biases or discrimination, and how any such bias can be detected and overcome;
    — Whether and how algorithmic decision-making can be conducted in a ‘transparent’ or ‘accountable’ way, and the scope for decisions made by an algorithm to be fully understood and challenged;
    — DThe implications of increased transparency in terms of copyright and commercial sensitivity, and protection of an individual’s data;
  • Methods for providing regulatory oversight of algorithmic decision-making, such as the rights described in the EU General Data Protection Regulation 2016.

The Committee would welcome views on the issues above, and submissions that illustrate how the issues vary by context through case studies of the use of algorithmic decision-making.

You can submit written evidence through the algorithms in decision-making inquiry page.

I looked at the submission form and while it assumes the submitter is from the UK, there doesn’t seem to be any impediment to citizens of other countries from making a submission. Since there is some personal information included as part of the submission, there is a note about data protection on the Guidance on giving evidence to a Select Committee of the House of Commons webpage.

Job at Sense about Science

Sense about Science is advertising for a Campaigns Manager. From the job posting webpage on the website,

Sense about Science is an independent campaigning charity that monitors and challenges the misrepresentation of science and scientific evidence in public life. We advocate for openness and honesty about scientific claims and findings, and mobilise the public to ask questions about science and evidence.

We are recruiting for this post to run the AllTrials campaign and parts of other Sense About Science campaigns and responsive work, reporting to the campaigns director. The AllTrials campaign for clinical trials transparency has already resulted in new regulations, commitments from organisations and support from thousands of people. We now need to build a vibrant international campaign, coordinating activity across the many groups championing trial reporting to change the culture of clinical trial reporting forever.

The role will include:

  • Day to day running of the AllTrials campaign:
    • Developing publicity and communications on the need for clinical trial transparency, including in the media, for supporters, in fundraising appeals and grant applications
    • Coordinating campaign responses to public and political consultations
    • Building and maintaining networks of organisations and experts, in the UK and globally, and coordinating activity
    • Liaising with the team at Sense About Science USA and helping to coordinate AllTrials work in the US
    • Organising and running meetings and communications with the AllTrials campaign steering group
    • Managing Campaign Support Officer, campaign interns and campaign volunteers
  • Supporting the Director of Campaigns in devising and implementing campaign strategies, deputising for the Director of Campaigns
  • Initiating responsive campaigns to new issues and linking our body of work to new discussions
  • Representing Sense About Science at meetings, giving talks, chairing sessions and writing articles

The successful candidate will be articulate, motivated and ambitious about social change. It is a busy office and no two days are the same so you need to be able to plan well but adapt quickly. The ideal candidate will need:

  • a higher degree in a related subject and a background in research
  • experience of building and maintaining networks
  • experience coordinating and delivering projects and a well-tested ability to prioritise
  • the ability to analyse situations and act when in uncertain territory
  • confident and personable communication and a demonstrable ability to produce good written material which is suited to public awareness campaigns
  • good judgment and negotiating skills

Salary c. £28K – £32K. Holiday: 28 days (inc public holidays), 1 additional day after each year in post, and discretionary Christmas break days. Central London (EC1R). Will include some international travel and out of hours activity.

Email a CV and cover letter to the assistant director Emily Jesper ejesper@senseaboutscience.org by midnight on Friday 18th March 2016 [emphasis mine]. Please call Emily if you want to discuss the post and your suitability: 020 7490 9590.

If you don’t have a CV that matches the requirements but you are absolutely convinced you are right for us and this role, feel free to write to us to make the case.

Good luck and don’t forget the deadline is March 18, 2016.

Job: Sense about Science is looking for a Campaigns & Policy Officer

I received a notice yesterday (Sept. 7, 2015 which is Labour Day in Canada) about a job (deadline is Sept. 18, 2015 at 12 noon GMT or Sept. 18, 2015 at 4 am PST) with Sense about Science (UK),

Sense About Science is a charity that equips people to make sense of evidence. We are a source of information and we counter misinformation. We work with thousands of researchers and hundreds of organisations across civil society to run imaginative public campaigns that change debates.

We have a vacancy for a Campaigns & Policy Officer, which is an interesting and varied role to support Sense About Science’s campaigns – including AllTrials, Ask for Evidence and the Libel Reform Campaign – and our policy and responsive work.

Duties will include:

  • Monitoring social media, publicity and policy issues related to our work.
  • Conducting research for and writing briefings, presentations and reports.
  • Organising responses to public and policy consultations.
  • Being the first line of response to public enquiries, initiating responses to new issues and linking existing material to new discussions.
  • Giving talks, writing articles, and representing Sense About Science at meetings.

It’s a busy, lively office where we all muck in and no two days are the same. You need to be able to plan well but adapt quickly. As well as a passion for evidence, good team spirit and an appetite for responsibility, you will need:

  • A good degree; and ideally either a PhD or equivalent research experience.
  • Very good analytical skills.
  • An understanding of debates about evidence and a keen interest in civil society engagement and the policy environment.
  • A flair for clear, non-academic writing.
  • Confidence and a high standard of presentation.
  • Enthusiasm, ambition and diplomacy.

However, if you don’t have a CV that matches the requirements but you are absolutely convinced you are right for us and this role, feel free to write to us to make the case. 

Starting salary c. £20K.  1 year fixed-term contract. Holiday 20 days. Central London (EC1R). Will include some travel and out of hours activity.

Email a CV and cover letter to the assistant director Emily Jesper: ejesper@senseaboutscience.org. Please do call Emily if you want to discuss the post or your suitability: 020 7490 9590.

*CLOSING DATE Friday 18th September 2015 12:00 (noon).

Shortlisted candidates will be required to complete a written task by 24th September. Interviews: 1st/2nd October. It is essential that you explore our work before applying www.senseaboutscience.org.

Good luck!

Standing up for science: 2015 call for John Maddox Prize nominations

I received a notice from the UK’s ‘sense about science’ organization rregarding nominations for its 2015 John Maddox Prize (or the ‘standing up for science’ prize). Before proceeding to the announcement, the John Maddox Prize webpage provides some information about John Maddox and the prize or there’s this video originally prepared for the 2014 call for nominations,

From the April 9, 2015 sense about science announcement,

Do you know someone who has promoted sound science and evidence?

Nominate them for the 2015 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science.

The John Maddox Prize rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest. Its emphasis is on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so. Nominations of active researchers who have yet to receive recognition for their public-interest work are particularly welcomed.

The winner of the John Maddox Prize will receive £2000, and an announcement of the winner will be published in Nature. The award is presented at a reception in November.

Full details and online nomination form here.

The deadline is 11:59 pm BST on Aug.20,  2015. Here are more details from the 2015 John Maddox Prize webpage,

The prize is open to nominations for any kind of public activity, including all forms of writing, speaking and public engagement, in any of the following areas:

Addressing misleading information about scientific or medical issues.
Bringing sound evidence to bear in a public or policy debate.
Helping people to make sense of a complex scientific issue.

The winner of the John Maddox Prize will receive £2000, and an announcement of the winner will be published in Nature. The award is presented at a reception in November.

Evaluation
The judging panel in 2015 consists of Tracey Brown (director, Sense About Science), Phil Campbell (editor-in-chief, Nature), Lord Rees of Ludlow FRS and Professor Colin Blakemore FRS. Judges sit in a personal capacity. Candidates will be judged on the strength of their nomination based on the below criteria:

How clearly the individual communicated good science, despite adversity.
The nature of adversity faced by the individual.
How well they placed the evidence in the wider debate and engaged others.
Their level of influence on the public debate.

The winner is chosen by the judging panel, not by Sense About Science. A shortlist will be announced at the judges’ discretion.

Nomination
Researchers in any area of science or engineering, or those who work to address misleading information and bring evidence to the public, are eligible to be nominated. Nominations are to take the form of a letter of recommendation and include biographical information on the candidate and a description of the candidate’s work in standing up for science. Permission must be sought from the nominee. The individual nominated, the referee, and the nominator may be contacted for more information including references.

Staff, trustees and directors of the supporting organisations and previous or current members of the judging panel and their direct relations are not eligible for nomination for the Prize, though they may nominate. It is open to anyone else, including people who have published with or worked with either organisation as contributors, advisers or in other collaborations.

Good luck! As far as I can tell, there are no residency requirements so this competition is open internationally.

Job at Sense About Science

For anyone who’s not familiar with Sense About Science (from a Jan. 8, 2015 email),

Sense About Science is the UK based charity that puts science and evidence in the hands of the public. We are a source of information, we challenge misinformation and we champion sound science and evidence. We run award winning campaigns to promote open discussion about evidence, free from stigma and intimidation.

Here is the job posting (from the Jan. 8, 2015 email),

Campaigns Manager

We are recruiting for this new post, reporting to the campaigns director, to run the AllTrials campaign and parts of other Sense About Science campaigns and responsive work.

The AllTrials campaign for clinical trials transparency has already resulted in new regulations, commitments from organisations and support from thousands of people. We now need to extend internationally, coordinating activity across many groups, including patients, publishers, regulators, funders and companies, to get past and future trials reported.

You will manage the AllTrials campaign activities large and small

–          in the UK, with a campaign support officer and volunteers, and the AllTrials steering group,

–          internationally, working with Sense About Science USA and building international relationships.

The post will involve initiating responsive campaigns to new issues and linking our body of work to new discussions. It will involve presenting our work and aims in a variety of forums, from senior government officials to community talks; chairing meetings; and writing articles.

You will work with the campaigns director to devise and implement strategies for AllTrials, and deputise for her, taking a hand in the broader campaign work and Sense About Science.

The successful candidate will be articulate, motivated and ambitious about social change. It is a busy office and no two days are the same so you need to be able to plan well but adapt quickly. The ideal candidate will need:

  • a higher degree in a related subject and a background in research
  • experience of building and maintaining networks
  • experience coordinating and delivering projects and a well-tested ability to prioritise
  • the ability to analyse situations and act when in uncertain territory
  • confident and personable communication and a demonstrable ability to produce good written material which is suited to public awareness campaigns
  • good judgment and negotiating skills

Salary c. £28K – £32K. Holiday: 28 days (inc public holidays), 1 additional day after each year in post, and discretionary Christmas break days. Central London (EC1R). Will include some international travel and out of hours activity.

Email a CV and cover letter to the assistant director Emily Jesper ejesper@senseaboutscience.org by midnight on Thursday 21st January 2015. Interviews will be on Monday 2nd February 2015. Please call director of campaigns Síle Lane if you want to discuss the post and your suitability: 020 7490 9590.

If you don’t have a CV that matches the requirements but you are absolutely convinced you are right for us and this role, feel free to write to us to make the case.

I very much appreciate the final paragraph in the excerpt above. It’s nice to see an organization take a more flexible approach to the recruiting process. You can find the job posting on the Sense About Science website.

2014 Maddox Prize winners and more ( a letter writing compaign)* from Sense about Science*

The UK’s ‘Sense about Science’ organization announced the two winners of its 2014 John Maddox (aka, the ‘standing up for science’) Prize in late October 2014 (from the Oct. 28, 2014 announcement),

I am delighted to share that last night [Oct. 27, 2014] Dr Emily Willingham and Dr David Robert Grimes were announced as the winners of the 2014 John Maddox Prize, at our annual reception held with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

After lengthy deliberation, this year’s judges (Tracey Brown, Philip Campbell, Colin Blakemore and Martin Rees) awarded the prize to these two people who embody the spirit of the prize, showing courage in promoting science and evidence on a matter of public interest, despite facing difficulty and hostility in doing so.

The call for 2014 nominations was mentioned in an Aug. 18, 2014 post. Here’s more about each of the winners (from the 2014 John Maddox Prize webpage on the Sense about Science website),

The judges awarded the prize to freelance journalist Dr Emily Willingham and early career scientist Dr David Robert Grimes for courage in promoting science and evidence on a matter of public interest, despite facing difficulty and hostility in doing so. …

David Grimes writes bravely on challenging and controversial issues, including nuclear power and climate change. He has persevered despite hostility and threats, such as on his writing about the evidence in the debate on abortion in Ireland. He does so while sustaining his career as a scientist at the University of Oxford.

Emily Willingham, a US writer, has brought discussion about evidence, from school shootings to home birth, to large audiences through her writing. She has continued to reach across conflict and disputes about evidence to the people trying to make sense of them. She is facing a lawsuit for an article about the purported link between vaccines and autism.

A Nov. 1, 2014 post by Nick Cohen for the Guardian newspaper discusses one of the 2014 winners in the context of a post about standing up to science ignorance and Ebola in the US, scroll down abut 15% of the way),

The joint winners confronted beliefs that are as prevalent in Britain as America: that vaccination causes autism, that homeopathic medicines work, that manmade climate change does not exist and that adding fluoride to the water supply is a threat to health. (I didn’t know it until the prize jury told me but Sinn Féin is leading a vigorous anti-fluoride campaign in Dublin – well, I suppose it’s progress for the IRA to go from blowing off peoples’ heads to merely rotting their teeth.)

David Robert Grimes, one of the winners, said that, contrary to the myth of the scientific bully, most of his colleagues wanted to keep out of public debate, presumably because they did not wish to receive the threats of violence fanatics and quacks have directed at him. If we are to improve public policy in areas as diverse as the fight against Ebola to the treatment of drug addicts, they need to be a braver, and more willing to tell the public, which so often funds their research, what they have learned.

Grimes makes a useful distinction. Most people just want more information and scientists should be prepared to make their case clearly and concisely. Then there are the rest – Ukip, the Tea Party, governors of Maine, Sinn Féin, David Cameron, climate change deniers – who will block out any evidence that contradicts their beliefs. They confirm the truth of Paul Simon’s line: “All lies and jest, still the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

Lydia Lepage (a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the Voice of Young Science, which is run by Sense About Science) over on the Conversation writes about both winners in an Oct. 28, 2014 post (Note: Links have been removed),

Willingham is a freelance science journalist whose evidence-based article: “Blame Wakefield for missed autism-gut connection” drew intense criticism and a lawsuit from Andrew Wakefield, the discredited scientist known for his now-retracted 1998 Lancet paper on the alleged link between vaccines and autism. She criticised the “red herring and the subsequent noxious cloud that his fraud left over any research examining autism and the gut”.

Willingham’s self-declared passion is “presenting accurate, evidence-based information”. She says:

Standing up for science and public health in the face of not only unyielding but also sometimes threatening opposition can be tiring and demoralising.

Grimes is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford in the UK, working on modelling oxygen distribution in tumours. He has been awarded the Maddox Prize for reaching out to the public through his writing on a range of challenging and controversial issues, including nuclear power and climate change.

Grimes continues to present the evidence, despite receiving threats, particularly surrounding discussion on abortion in Ireland. Following his article on six myths about cancer, in which he addressed the “dubious and outlandish” information that can be found on the internet, he received physical and digital hate-mail.

Sense about Science next announced an ‘Ask for Evidence’ website, from a Nov. 2, 2014 announcement,

We are excited to announce that Ask for Evidence online is now live! And people are already using it to ask for the evidence behind claims they’ve come across. Check out www.askforevidence.org

It’s our new interactive website that makes asking for evidence and getting help understanding that evidence as easy as possible. You can use it to ask politicians, companies, NGOs and anyone else for evidence behind their claims, while you’re on the train, walking down the street or sitting in front of the TV. And if you need help understanding the evidence you’ve been sent, that’s there too. With the help of partners and friends we’ve built a help centre that has captured what we’ve learnt over the past 12 years answering thousands of requests for help in understanding evidence.

Finally,. there’s the latest announcement about an effort to influence the World Health Organization’s (WHO) new policy on reporting the results of clinical trials, from the Nov. 11, 2014 announcement,

Following our pressure, the World Health Organization is drafting a policy on reporting the results of clinical trials.

We have to grab this fantastic opportunity with both hands and make sure that the most influential health body in the world comes out with a statement that strongly supports clinical trials transparency.

But you only have until Saturday 15th November 2014 to add your voice.

The draft WHO policy does not call for the disclosure of the results of past trials, only future ones. The vast majority of medicines we use every day were approved by regulators a decade or more ago and so were tested in clinical trials over the past decades.

So email the WHO to tell them their policy should:

  1. Call for the results of all past clinical trials to be reported, as well as all future clinical trials.
  2. Require results to be reported within 12 months, rather than permitting delays of 18-30 months. The USA’s FDA Amendment Act, the newly adopted EU Clinical Trials Regulation and pharmaceutical companies including GSK and LEO Pharma all agree that 12 months is enough time to report results.
  3. Encourage researchers to put results on publicly accessible registers, in useful, standardised formats.

Email ictrpinfo@who.int today.

Be sure to include your name and contact details as the WHO will not consider anonymous comments.

You can also use the full AllTrials response to write your email if you wish.

Read the full AllTrials response.

I am encouraged to see a move towards more transparency in reporting the results of clinical trials whether or not this bid to include past clinical trials is successful, although that would certainly be excellent news.

* (a letter writing campaign) was added to the head and ‘sense about science’ was changed to ‘Sense about Science’ on Nov. 14, 2014 1015 hundred hours PDT.

FOE, nano, and food: part two of three (the problem with research)

The first part of this roughly six week food and nano ‘debate’ started off with the May 22, 2014 news item on Nanowerk announcing the Friends of the Earth (FOE) report ‘Way too little: Our Government’s failure to regulate nanomaterials in food and agriculture‘. Adding energy to FOE’s volley was a Mother Jones article written by Tom Philpott which had Dr. Andrew Maynard (Director of the University of Michigan’s Risk Science Center) replying decisively in an article published both on Nanowerk and on the Conversation.

Coincidentally or not, there were a couple of news items about ‘nano and food’ research efforts during the ‘debate’. A June 11, 2014 news item on Nanowerk highlights a Franco-German research project into the effects that nanomaterials have on the liver and the intestines while noting the scope of the task researchers face,

What mode of action do nanomaterials ingested via food have in liver and intestine? Which factors determine their toxicity? Due to the large number of different nanomaterials, it is hardly possible to test every one for its toxic properties. [emphasis mine] For this reason, specific properties for the classification of nanomaterials are to be examined within the scope of the Franco-German research project “SolNanoTox”, which began on 1 March 2014. The [German] Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) requires data on bioavailability for its assessment work, in particular on whether the solubility of nanomaterials has an influence on uptake and accumulation in certain organs, such as liver and intestine. “We want to find out in our tests whether the criterion ‘soluble or insoluble’ is a determining factor for uptake and toxicity of nanomaterials,” says BfR President Professor Dr. Andreas Hensel.

A June 13, 2014 German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) press release, which originated the news item, details the research and the participating agencies,

A risk assessment of nanomaterials is hardly possible at the moment and involves a very high degree of uncertainty, as important toxicological data on their behaviour in tissue and cells are still missing. [emphasis mine] The German-French SolNanoTox research project examines which role the solubility of nanomaterials plays with regard to their accumulation and potential toxic properties. The project is to run for three and a half years during which the BfR will work closely with its French sister organisation ANSES. Other partners are the Institut des Sciences Chimiques de Rennes and Universität Leipzig. The German Research Foundation and French Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR) are funding the project.

The tasks of the BfR include in vitro tests (e.g. the investigation of the influence of the human gastrointestinal system) and analysis of biological samples with regard to the possible accumulation of nanomaterials. In addition to this, the BfR uses modern methods of mass spectrometry imaging to find out whether nanoparticles alter the structure of biomolecules, e.g. the structure of the lipids of the cellular membrane. So far, these important tests, which are necessary for assessing possible changes in DNA or cellular structures caused by nanomaterials in food, have not been conducted.

Metallic nanoparticles are to be studied (from the press release),

In the project, two fundamentally different types of nanoparticles are examined as representatives for others of their type: titanium dioxide as representative of water insoluble nanoparticles and aluminium as an example of nanomaterials which show a certain degree of water solubility after oxidation. [emphases mine] It is examined whether the degree of solubility influences the distribution of the nanomaterials in the body and whether soluble materials may possibly accumulate more in other organs than insoluble ones. The object is to establish whether there is a direct toxic effect of insoluble nanomaterials in general after oral uptake due to their small size.

Different innovative analytical methods are combined in the project with the aim to elucidate the behaviour of nanomaterials in tissue and their uptake into the cell. The main focus is on effects which can trigger genotoxic damage and inflammation. At first, the effects of both materials are examined in human cultures of intestinal and liver cells in an artificial environment (in vitro). In the following, it has to be verified by animal experimentation whether the observed effects can also occur in humans. This modus operandi allows to draw conclusions on effects and mode of action of orally ingested nanomaterials with different properties. The goal is to group nanomaterials on the basis of specific properties and to allocate the corresponding toxicological properties to these groups. Motivation for the project is the enormous number of nanomaterials with large differences in physicochemical properties. Toxicological tests cannot be conducted for all materials.

In the meantime, a June 19, 2014 news item on Azonano (also on EurekAlert but dated June 18, 2014) features some research into metallic nanoparticles in dietary supplement drinks,

Robert Reed [University of Arizona] and colleagues note that food and drink manufacturers use nanoparticles in and on their products for many reasons. In packaging, they can provide strength, control how much air gets in and out, and keep unwanted microbes at bay. As additives to food and drinks, they can prevent caking, deliver nutrients and prevent bacterial growth. But as nanoparticles increase in use, so do concerns over their health and environmental effects. Consumers might absorb some of these materials through their skin, and inhale and ingest them. What doesn’t get digested is passed in urine and feces to the sewage system. A handful of initial studies on nanomaterials suggest that they could be harmful, but Reed’s team wanted to take a closer look.

They tested the effects of eight commercial drinks containing nano-size metal or metal-like particles on human intestinal cells in the lab. The drinks changed the normal organization and decreased the number of microvilli, finger-like projections on the cells that help digest food. In humans, if such an effect occurs as the drinks pass through the gastrointestinal tract, these materials could lead to poor digestion or diarrhea, they say. The researchers’ analysis of sewage waste containing these particles suggests that much of the nanomaterials from these products are likely making their way back into surface water, where they could potentially cause health problems for aquatic life.

This piece is interesting for two reasons. First, the researchers don’t claim that metallic nanoparticles cause digestion or diarrhea due to any action in the gastrointestinal tract. They studied the impact that metallic nanoparticles in supplementary drinks had on cells (in vitro testing) from the gastrointestinal tract. Based on what they observed in the laboratory, “… these materials could lead to poor digestion or diarrhea… .” The researchers also suggest a problem could occur as these materials enter surface water in increasing quantities.

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

Supplement Drinks and Assessment of Their Potential Interactions after Ingestion by Robert B. Reed, James J. Faust, Yu Yang, Kyle Doudrick, David G. Capco, Kiril Hristovski, and Paul Westerhoff. ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng., 2014, 2 (7), pp 1616–1624 DOI: 10.1021/sc500108m Publication Date (Web): June 2, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

With Paul Westerhoff as one of the authors and the reference to metallic nanoparticles entering water supplies, I’m guessing that this research is associated with the LCnano (lifecycle nano) project headquartered at Arizona State university (April 8, 2014 posting).

Getting back to the Franco-German SolNanoTox project, scientists do not know what happens when the cells in your intestines, liver, etc. encounter metallic or other nanoparticles, some of which may be naturally occurring. It should also be noted that we have likely been ingesting metallic nanoparticles for quite some time. After all, anyone who has used silver cutlery has ingested some silver nanoparticles.

There are many, many questions to be asked and answered with regard to nanomaterials in our foods.  Here are a few of mine:

  • How many metallic and other nanoparticles did we ingest before the advent of ‘nanomaterials in food’?
  • What is the biopersistence of naturally occurring and engineered metallic and other nanoparticles in the body?
  • Is there an acceptable dose versus a fatal dose? (Note: There’s naturally occurring formaldehyde in pears as per my May 19, 2014 post about doses, poisons, and the Sense about Science group’s campaign/book, Making Sense of Chemical Stories.)
  • What happens as the metallic and other engineered nanoparticles are added to food and drink and eventually enter our water, air, and soil?

Returning to the ‘debate’, a July 11, 2014 article by Sarah Shemkus for a sponsored section in the UK’s Guardian newspaper highlights an initiative taken by an environmental organization, As You Sow, concerning titanium dioxide in Dunkin’ Donuts’ products (Note: A link has been removed),

The activists at environmental nonprofit As You Sow want you to take another look at your breakfast doughnut. The organization recently filed a shareholder resolution asking Dunkin’ Brands, the parent company of Dunkin’ Donuts, to identify products that may contain nanomaterials and to prepare a report assessing the risks of using these substances in foods.

Their resolution received a fair amount of support: at the company’s annual general meeting in May, 18.7% of shareholders, representing $547m in investment, voted for it. Danielle Fugere, As You Sow’s president, claims that it was the first such resolution to ever receive a vote. Though it did not pass, she says that she is encouraged by the support it received.

“That’s a substantial number of votes in favor, especially for a first-time resolution,” she says.

The measure was driven by recent testing sponsored by As You Sow, which found nanoparticles of titanium dioxide in the powdered sugar that coats some of the donut chain’s products. [emphasis mine] An additive widely used to boost whiteness in products from toothpaste to plastic, microscopic titanium dioxide has not been conclusively proven unsafe for human consumption. Then again, As You Sow contends, there also isn’t proof that it is harmless.

“Until a company can demonstrate the use of nanomaterials is safe, we’re asking companies either to not use them or to provide labels,” says Fugere. “It would make more sense to understand these materials before putting them in our food.”

As You Sow is currently having 16 more foods tested. The result should be available later this summer, Fugere says.

I wonder if As You Sow will address the question of whether the nanoscale titanium dioxide they find indicates that nanoscale particles are being deliberately added or whether the particles are the inadvertent consequence of the production process. That said, I find it hard to believe no one in the food industry is using engineered nanoscale additives as they claim  (the other strategy is to offer a nonanswer) in Shemkus’ article (Note: Links have been removed).,

In a statement, Dunkin’ Donuts argues that the titanium dioxide identified by As You Sow does not qualify as a nanomaterial according to European Union rules or draft US Food and Drug Administration regulations. The company also points out that there is no agreed-upon standard method for identifying nanoparticles in food.

In 2008, As You Sow filed nanomaterial labeling resolutions with McDonald’s and Kraft Foods. In response, McDonald’s released a statement declaring that it does not support the use of nanomaterials in its food, packaging or toys. Kraft responded that it would make sure to address health and safety concerns before ever using nanomaterials in its products.

While Shemkus’ article appears in the Guardian’s Food Hub which is sponsored by the Irish Food Board, this article manages to avoid the pitfalls found in Philpott’s nonsponsored article.

Coming next: the US Food and Drug Administration Guidance issued five weeks after the FOE kicks off the ‘nano and food’ debate in May 2014 with its ‘Way too little: Our Government’s failure to regulate nanomaterials in food and agriculture‘ report.

Part one (an FOE report is published)

Part three (final guidance)

Nominations for the 2014 John Maddox Prize (standing up for science) open ’til Aug. 20, 2014

The UK’s ‘sense about science’ organization is requesting nominations for its John Maddox Prize (or the ‘standing up for science’ prize). Its John Maddox Prize webpage provides some information about John Maddox and the prize (Note: A link has been removed),

The John Maddox Prize for standing up for science rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest. Its emphasis is on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so. Nominations of active researchers who have yet to receive recognition for their public-interest work are particularly welcomed.

Sir John Maddox, whose name this prize commemorates, was a passionate and tireless champion and defender of science, engaging with difficult debates and inspiring others to do the same. As a writer and editor, he changed attitudes and perceptions, and strove for better understanding and appreciation of science throughout his long working life.

The judges recognise that ‘standing up for science’ is likely to be controversial in the eyes of some. The prize will be awarded for specific achievements, and the decision will be final and not open to appeal. The winner is chosen by the judging panel. …

The prize is a joint initiative of Nature, where Sir John was editor for 22 years; the Kohn Foundation, whose founder Sir Ralph Kohn was a personal friend of Sir John’s, particularly through their Fellowship of the Royal Society; and Sense About Science, where Sir John served as a trustee until his death in 2009.

As for details about the nomination process, here’s more from the 2014 John Maddox Prize webpage,

The deadline for nominations is 11:59pm on 20th August 2014 BST.

The prize is open to nominations for any kind of public activity, including all forms of writing, speaking and public engagement, in any of the following areas:

Addressing misleading information about scientific or medical issues in any forum.
Bringing sound evidence to bear in a public or policy debate.
Helping people to make sense of a complex scientific issue.

The prize: £2000. The award is presented in October and an announcement of the winner will be published in Nature.

You may want to check out the 2014 nomination webpage further but the enthusiastic and/or impatient can find the nomination form here.

The imperfections of science advice noted amidst rumblings in Europe

The current science advice rumblings in Europe seem to have been launched on Tuesday, July 22, 2014 with an open letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, President-elect of the European Commission, from representatives of nine nongovernmental agencies (NGOs).

From the July 22, 2014 letter on the Corporate Europe Observatory website,

We are writing to you to express our concerns regarding the position of Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission. This post was created by Commission President Barroso at the suggestion of the United Kingdom, and was held by Ms Anne Glover since January 2012. The mandate of the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) is “to provide independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation as requested by the President”.1

We are aware that business lobbies urge you to continue with the practice established by Mr Barroso and even to strengthen the chief adviser’s formal role in policy making.2 We, by contrast, appeal to you to scrap this position. The post of Chief Scientific Adviser is fundamentally problematic as it concentrates too much influence in one person, and undermines in-depth scientific research and assessments carried out by or for the Commission directorates in the course of policy elaboration.

Interestingly, they offer only one specific instance of Glover’s  advice with which they disagree: genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Note: Links have been removed,

To the media, the current CSA presented one-sided, partial opinions in the debate on the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, repeatedly claiming that there was a scientific consensus about their safety3 whereas this claim is contradicted by an international statement of scientists (currently 297 signatories) saying that it “misrepresents the currently available scientific evidence and the broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue.”4

Unfortunately, that argument renders the letter into an expression of political pique especially since  the signatories are described as anti-GMO both in Roger Pielke’s July 24, 2014 opinion piece for the Guardian newspaper and in Sile Lane’s July 25, 2014 opinion piece for the New Scientist journal. As Pielke notes, the reference to GMOs overshadows some reasonable concerns expressed in their letter (from Pielke’s opinion piece; Note: Links have been removed),

While it is easy to ridicule the recommendation to abolish the science adviser, there is some merit in the complaints levied by the disaffected NGOs. They express concern that the CSA has been “unaccountable, intransparent and controversial”, singling out public statements by Anne Glover on genetically modified organisms. [emphasis mine]

Perhaps surprisingly, these groups find an ally in these complaints in none other than Glover herself who recently complained about the politicization of science advice within the European Union: “What happens at the moment – whether it’s in commission, parliament or council – is that time and time again, if people don’t like what’s being proposed, what they say is that there is something wrong with the evidence.” [emphasis mine]

Pielke’s piece draws parallels between the US situation (in particular but not confined to Richard Nixon’s policies in the 1970s) and Europe’s current situation. It is well worth reading as is Lane’s piece (Sile Lane is Director of Campaigns for Sense about Science; scroll down about 25% of the way), which amongst other arguments, provides a counter-argument to the criticism of Glover’s advice on GMOs,

… No matter that Glover has faithfully and accurately represented the strong scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs – that, in the words of a commission report, are “no more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies”.

This is a position supported by every major scientific institution in the world, and all the scientific academies of countries and regions, but denied by the anti-GMO lobby, which promotes its own alternative “consensus” of a small ragtag group of academics out on the fringes of the mainstream.

There are a number of letters from various organizations countering the July 22, 2014 salvo/letter including this from Sense about Science,

Many other organisations are sending their own letters including nine European medical research organisations and the European Plant Science Organisation representing 227 public research institutions across Europe.

Dear Mr Juncker

We write to you with some urgency in response to a letter you will have just received from nine NGOs urging you to abolish the position of Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission. The letter, which includes Greenpeace as a signatory as well as other prominent NGO voices, alleges that the “post of Chief Scientific Adviser is fundamentally problematic” and asks you to “scrap this position”1.

As organisations and individuals who share a commitment to improving the evidence available to policy makers, we cannot stress strongly enough our objection to any attempt to undermine the integrity and independence of scientific advice received at the highest level of the European Commission. …

You can add your name to the letter by going here.

There is a July 28, 2014 posting on the Science Advice to Governments; a global conference website which provides a listing of the various opinion pieces, letters, and other responses. (Note: This global science advice conference being held in Auckland, New Zealand, Aug. 28 – 29, 2014 was first mentioned here in an April 8, 2014 posting which lists the then confirmed speakers and notes a few other tidbits.)

In the end, it seems that everyone can agree as per the comments in the July 22, 2014 letter from the nine NGOs that science advice needs to be transparent and accountable. As for controversy, that will remain a problem as long as human beings live on the earth.