Monthly Archives: November 2009

Can you trust science and scientists?; nanoparticle sludge is a good thing

The recent kerfuffle about scientists, climate change, and hacked emails  (see this story in the UK Guardian for more details) is oddly coincidental with a couple of articles I’ve read recently about trust, science, pr, and scientific claims.

Andrew Maynard (2020 Science) wrote Do scientists dncourage misleading coverage? to explore some of the issues around how scientists get media coverage for their work as he examines a specific incident.

The easiest, simplest way to get coverage for anything is to make a dramatic statement. e.g. First xxxx in history; Huge losses xxxx; xxx possibly fatal; etc. This can lead to overblown claims and/or a snarky, combative communications style. Maynard’s example features overblown claims about possible future applications of a very exciting development. The serious work was published in Nature Physics but someone at the university has written up a news release and produced a video that features the overblown claims as part of their science outreach. Some of this more dramatic material has been picked up and reproduced elsewhere for general consumption.

The reality is that any scientific endeavour occurs over a long period of time and there are many twists and turns before there is any relative certainty about the discovery and/or the implications for any applications that may arise from it.

In the case of climate change, there is strong evidence but as in any other scientific endeavour there are uncertainties. These uncertainties are integral to how science is practiced because our understanding is constantly being refined (theoretically anyway).

The campaign in the popular media to raise concern about climate change is often quite dramatic and has stripped away much of the uncertainty inherent to scientific data. The campaign has been quite successful but an opportunity was created when the evidence for climate change was presented as irrefutable. Opponents were able to capitalize on anomalies and the uncertainty that is inherent in the practice of science. Interestingly, the opponents are just as dramatic and insist their material is just as irrefutable. So, who do you trust? It’s a pretty basic issue and one that keeps recurring.

The point Maynard and Matthew Nisbett (Framing Science blog)  in his posting, Two articles on prediction and hype in science, is that in trying engage the public scientists need to be mindful. Giving in to the impulse to exaggerate or overstate a conclusion for a headline (I do sympathize with that impulse) will do more damage than good to the public’s trust.

Now for something completely different. As more products with nanoparticles enter the marketplace, there’s increasing concern about what happens to them as they are washed off from athletic gear, cleaning products, your body (after using beauty and cosmetic products) and more. According to a newly published paper, scientists may have found a way to remove nanoparticles  from wastewater.  From the news item on Nanowerk,

The new study, details of which are published in Environmental Science & Technology (“Fate of Silica Nanoparticles in Simulated Primary Wastewater Treatment”), simulated primary sewage treatment to show that coating silica nanoparticles with a detergent-like material (called a surfactant) made the nanoparticles interact with components of the sewage to form a solid sludge. This sludge can be separated from the wastewater and disposed of. In contrast, uncoated nanoparticles stayed dispersed in the wastewater and were therefore likely to continue through the effluent stream and potentially on into the environment.

Assuming that nanoparticles entering the environment in substantive quantities is not a good thing, I hope they find some way to deal with them and this research certainly seems promising.

Nanotech cosmetics and beauty products labelling; scientists in Japan worried about research cuts; gender imbalance in European science researcher community; nano game;

I mentioned the new European nano labeling regulation cosmetics and beauty products earlier this week (Nov.24.09) in the context of Germany’s resistance to it. Now officially passed(from the news item on Nanowerk),

The nanoparticle decree is part of a new 397-page cosmetics regulation approved on 20 November by the Council of the European Union, which includes ministers from all EU nations and is the EU’s main decision-making body. The cosmetic regulation states that all ingredients present in the product in the form of nanomaterials should be clearly indicated in the list of ingredients, by inserting the word ‘nano’ in brackets after the ingredient listing. The ruling defines nanomaterial as ‘an insoluble or biopersistant and intentionally manufactured material with one or more external dimensions, or an internal structure, on the scale from 1 to 100 nm’.

Now I wonder how  long before we start hearing demands for similar product labeling in the US, Canada, and Australia? As for failing to mention other countries,  I haven’t come across any health and safety or environmental discussions in other countries but I only search English language materials so I’m not likely to find something written in Spanish, Chinese, etc.

More cuts to  scientific research and, this time, in Japan. From the news item on,

Top Japanese scientists, including four Nobel laureates, have criticised the new government for plans to slash research budgets, warning the country will loose its high-tech edge.

“The panel’s approach of judging science purely from a cost perspective completely lacks vision,” said 2001 Nobel Chemistry prize winner Ryoji Noyori. “I wonder if the panelists are ready to face the judgement of history.”

Kyoto University professor Shinya Yamanaka, a pioneer of embryonic stem cell research, told reporters: “I am deeply concerned about the development, which is just beyond my imagination.”

“You cannot predict achievements, that’s science,” he said. “I’m worried about Japan’s future.”

It certainly sounds familiar and it seems as if there is a fad sweeping governments ’round the world as they cut back on science funding and/or focus on the short term goal of realizing financial benefits in the immediately foreseeable future. The only exception, the US, seems to be holding firm to a commitment to basic science. If you know of any other countries doing so, please do let me know.

In the three years I’ve been tracking nanotechnology research I’ve noticed that female researchers are few and far between. During a research project in 2007, I asked one of the few I’d come across about my observation and ran into a metaphorical stone wall (she really didn’t want to talk about it). Apparently this dearth of female nanotechnology researchers is a reflection of a larger issue. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Despite a rise in their numbers, female scientific researchers remain a minority, accounting for just 30% of all scientific researchers in Europe. Furthermore, the more senior positions in science and research are still heavily dominated by men. These are some of the main findings in the latest ‘She Figures’, statistics on women in science in Europe which are produced every three years by the European Commission and the Helsinki Group on Women and Science. ‘While some trends are positive, the fact that women remain underrepresented in scientific careers should be a worry for all of us,’ commented European Commissioner for Science and Research, Janez Potocnik. ‘This gender imbalance in science is a waste of opportunity and talent which Europe cannot afford.’

I realize this is a European report but I think it reflects the international situation and, point well taken, it “is a waste of opportunity and talent.”

For a complete change of pace: Nanovor is a new game for 7 to 12 year olds. Yes, it’s all about nano. I find the storyline a bit strange, from the news item on Nanowerk,

Nanovor is based in a rich fictional world where nanoscopic monsters, known as Nanovor live and battle inside computers. These nanoscopic dust mites ruled our still-molten Earth, long before any other species could survive. As Earth cooled and the atmosphere became oxygen-rich, the silicon-based Nanovor slipped into deep hibernation for billions of years. In 1958, when silicon was embedded within a computer chip and electricity pulsed through it for the very first time, the Nanovor sprung back to life.

The business model reminds me of the sticker craze that one of my nieces participated in when she was about 7 or 8 years old. She started collecting stickers to put into books. New themes for stickers and their books were constantly being added to the product line and she was always trying to catch up. This game which can be downloaded free has booster packs (additional nanovors) that can be purchased.  If the game becomes popular, the booster packs (the equivalent of a new sticker theme) will become essential to playing the game.

There is a video about the game at the link to Nanowerk that I’ve provided. After viewing the video I’d say the game does seems a bit male dominated especially when you go to the game’s website and look up the main characters: Lucas, Mr. Sapphire, and Drew (female) who are listed in that order here but it is early days and these things can change over time.  The company producing the game is called, Smith & Tinker, and their tag line is: Reinventing play for the connected generation.

Happy weekend!

Canadian nano in Ontario; Germany’s position on labeling cosmetics as nano products; combing quantum tangles; 1st undergraduate nanoscale science studies programme in US

Today I have a lot of short news bits. First, there’s some Canadian nanotechnology news. The Ontario government is investing $3.8M in Vive Nano and its environmentally friendly process for creating nano materials and products. The funding is being disbursed through the Ontario government’s Innovation Demonstration Fund.

I took a look at Vive Nano’s website and it’s short on detail. They make the claim that their products are environmentally friendly without substantiating it. On the plus side, there’s a very descriptive video about their process for developing nanoparticles which you can access by selecting ‘our technology’ from the ‘what we do’ pulldown menu on the home page. (If you want to read more details from the news item on Nanowerk, go here.)

I was surprised to find out that Germany had resisted the European Union’s new requirements to label nanotechnology-derived ingredients in cosmetics and beauty products as such. From the news item on Nanwerk,

One of the key elements of the new streamlined laws is a clause requiring companies to print the word ‘nano’ in brackets after any ingredient which is smaller than 100 nanometres in size.
“All ingredients present in the form of nanomaterials shall be clearly indicated in the list of ingredients,” according to the new legislation.
However, Germany took the view (pdf download) that highlighting the fact that a product contains nanomaterials could be viewed by consumers as a warning.
German officials noted that cosmetic products that are for sale in the EU must already pass stringent safety tests, implying that the inclusion of nano-scale materials should not warrant additional scrutiny.

I believed there was more unanimity of thought regarding labeling and concerns about health and safety regarding emerging technologies in the European Union (EU). In hindsight, I suspect that’s because most of the material I read about the EU is written after the discussions and disagreements have been resolved or smoothed over in some way.

I’ve been wondering where the metaphors have disappeared to in the last few months as the nanotechnology announcements contain fewer and fewer of them. Happily I found a new one the other day. From the news item (Straightening messy correlations with a quantum comb) on Nanowerk,

Quantum computing promises ultra-fast communication, computation and more powerful ways to encrypt sensitive information. But trying to use quantum states as carriers of information is an extremely delicate business. Now two physicists have shown, mathematically, how to gently tease out unwanted knots in quantum communication, while keeping the information intact.

The scientist as a hairdresser? Teasing and combing out knots? It’s very different from the more usual science fiction reference and it hints at creativity (good hairdressers are creative).

The University of Albany is really pulling out all the stops lately. In addition to their NANOvember events they have just announced the first undergraduate programme for nanoscale science studies in the US. From the news item on Nanowerk,

The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (“CNSE”) of the University at Albany announced today that it is now accepting applications for admission to its groundbreaking undergraduate program, which represents the nation’s first comprehensive baccalaureate curriculum in Nanoscale Science.

As I commented in a previous posting (Nov.9.2009), IBM did invest $1.5B into New York state for a nano research centre and it would seem that this new university programme is very well set to provide future employees.

One more thing, girl scouts. 200 of them were hosted by the CNSE in a Nano Explorations Program. From the news item on Nanowerk,

The event was part of CNSE’s celebration of NANOvember, a month-long community and educational outreach initiative that includes a series of programs and activities highlighting the increasing impact of nanotechnology and the global leadership of the UAlbany NanoCollege in the most important science of the 21st century. The event included a presentation on the emerging science of nanotechnology and the career opportunities it offers; hands-on activities that showcased the role of nanotechnology research and development, with a special focus on clean and renewable energy technologies; a gowning demonstration that illustrated how researchers prepare to work in CNSE’s state-of-the-art cleanrooms; and tours of CNSE’s Albany NanoTech Complex, with tools and facilities that are unmatched at any university in the world.

What really impresses me with the NANOvember programming is the range and imagination they’ve used to communicate about nanotechnology.

Patenting and copyrighting intellectual property; the role of technical innovation; more on London’s digital cloud

I keep expecting someone to try patenting/copyrighting/trademarking a nanoparticle or some such nanoscale object. If you believe that to be unthinkable, I suggest you read this (from TechDirt’s  Mike Masnick’s news item here),

We’ve seen a few ridiculous cases whereby local governments claim copyright on a law [emphasis mine], but it’s still stunning to see what’s going on in Liberia. Tom sends in the news that no one knows what the law covers in Liberia, because one man, leading a small group of lawyers, claims to hold the copyright on the laws of the country and won’t share them unless people (or, rather, the government of Liberia) is willing to pay. Oh, and did we mention that the US government paid for some of this?

Masnick’s article provides a link to more information in the story, He’s got the law (literally) in his hands, by Jina Moore and Glenna Gordon. While I find the situation extreme what strikes me first in Masnick’s piece is that it’s not unusual. So if people are actually going to try and copyright a law, why not a nanoparticle?

Coincidentally, China and India have made a proposal to eschew intellectual property rights with regard to green/clean technologies prior to the big climate talks during December (2009) in Copenhagen.  From the news item on Nanowerk,

As world leaders prepare for climate talks in Copenhagen next month, developing nations have tabled a controversial proposal which would effectively end patent protection for clean technologies.
China and India have floated the idea of making new green technology subject to ‘compulsory licensing’, which critics say amounts to waiving intellectual property rights.
The idea of adapting or liberalising patent rules for crucial new inventions which can help reduce carbon emissions is not new, but the EU and US are unhappy with compulsory licensing, fearing it would dramatically reduce the incentive for businesses to innovate and stifle green job creation.
Compulsory licensing has to date only been used in emergency situations where patent-protected pharmaceuticals were seen as prohibitively expensive. The Thai government used the mechanism to allow local medicines factories [to] produce HIV drugs at a fraction of the cost.

I’m guessing the reason that this item was posted on Nanowerk is that nanotechnology is often featured as an enabler of cleaner/greener products.

On a related theme, Andrew Maynard has posted his thoughts on the World Economic Forum that he attended last week in Dubai (from his Nov.22.09 posting),

Developing appropriate technology-based solutions to global challenges is only possible if  technology innovation policy is integrated into the decision-making process at the highest levels in government, industry and other relevant organizations.  Without such high-level oversight, there is a tendency to use the technology that’s available, rather than to develop the technology that’s needed.  And as the challenges of living in an over-populated and under-resourced world [emphasis mine] escalate, this will only exacerbate the disconnect between critical challenges and technology-based solutions.

The importance of technology innovation – and emerging technologies in particular – was highlighted by Lord Malloch-Brown in his closing remarks at this year’s Summit on the Global Agenda.  Yet there is still a way to go before technology innovation is integrated into the global agenda dialogue, rather than being tacked on to it

Maynard provides an intriguing insight into some of the international agenda which includes a much broader range of discussion topics that I would have expected from something called an ‘economic’ forum.  You can read more about the World Economic Forum organization and its latest meeting here.

I wasn’t expecting to find out more about London Olympics 2012”s digital cloud proposed project on Andy Miah’s website as I tend to associate him with human enhancement, Olympic sports, post humanism, and nanotechnology topics. I keep forgetting about his media interests. Here’s his latest (Nov.22.09) posting on the Digital Olympics (title of his new book) where he includes images and a video about the architectural project.

Cookie cutters; agility vs. rigidity; 2010 Canadian Science Policy Conference; Kate Pullinger GG 2009 award winner for fiction

Ever wonder about all that talk about critical thinking? Supposedly that’s what education does for you, i.e. encourages critical thinking. I mention it because there’s a great little essay on The Black Hole blog about critical thinking in higher education. It’s called, Science is like Baking: The Rise of the Cookie Cutter PhD. I did have one minor quibble,

Together, these forces do what I think we should be very very scared of… they apply pressure to churn out PhDs faster, with more papers, with less flexibility in ideas and more rigid (read publishable) research project designs. So, in the end, little effort goes into helping the PhD students think critically about their field – and while I don’t believe this style of training is as far gone in the Humanities… I think it’s coming, so get yourself ready!

Sadly, I believe that the process is already gaining momentum in the humanities.

Rob Annan at Don’t Leave Canada Behind has a very pointed (scathing) analysis of a pre-budget submission from the SSHRC/NSERC/CIHR tri-council to the House of Commons Standing Committee.  [SSHRC = Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council; NSERC = Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council; CHIR = Canadian Health Institutes Research] From his posting,

… What does this mean? Sounds to me like stable, long-term funding is to be sacrificed at the altar of increased flexibility. And what exactly is a “dynamic approach” to funding research? This bureaucratic nonsense speak could have real consequences for researchers. Does agility, dynamism, and responsiveness mean that the agencies will be rapidly changing funding priorities from year to year? Will the agencies just start chasing the hottest trends?

Annan’s concern about “agility, dynamism and responsiveness” as a funding agency priority would seem to contradict The Black Hole’s essayist’s concern “with more papers, with less flexibility in ideas and more rigid (read more publishable) research project designs.”

In fact, we could end up with a situation where both apply. Imagine this. (1) A researcher applies for a ‘trendy’ area of research thereby fulfilling the funding agency’s dynamic, responsive funding requirement. (2) The researcher or PhD student’s academic institution or employer constrains the researcher to pump out multiple papers from a rigid research design under the funding agency’s the rubric of being responsive and agile.

Frankly, I’d like to see a little more agility and dynamism but I’d like it see it applied effectively. Sadly, I believe that my little scenario is more likely than not. The funding agencies are scrambling for money and, with the best of intentions, will do what it takes to get more so they can fulfill their mandate of supporting research. Meanwhile, the academic institutions will pay lip service to agility and dynamism while they apply the principles of rigidity and conformity used in production lines to pump out more product (publishable papers, awards, etc.) so they can maintain themselves and provide (their raison d’etre) education.

On other notes: there is a 2010 Public Science in Canada | Strengthening Science and Policy to Protect Canadians conference coming up in May. The keynote speakers are Stephen Lewis in an as yet untitled talk and [David] Suzuki and [Preston] Manning on Science: A Public Dialogue.  (Is there a Canadian science conference or science event where Preston Manning isn’t giving a keynote address?) More details can be found here.

On a personal note, congratulations to the Governor General’s latest fiction award winner, Kate Pullinger for the Mistress of Nothing. She was one of the leaders and teachers in my master’s programme (Creative Writing and New Media) at De Montfort University in the UK. I’m grateful that I had a chance to study in the programme (which was canceled after its 3rd year). I was able to experiment with creative writing techniques and science writing and that was a privilege.

Nanotechnology strategies everywhere except Canada; Visible Verse 2009; OECD workshops on nanotech in developing world

There’s an article by Michael Berger on Nanowerk titled, European strategy for nanotechnology and the nanotechnology Action Plan, where he outlines the European Union’s approach to creating a strategy, contrasts it in a few asides (launching potshots at the Europeans) with the US approach, and provides some handy links. Coincidentally there’s a news item on Nanowerk about RUSNANO (the Russian publicly funded nanotech investment agency) visiting Sweden. From the news item,

A RUSNANO delegation headed by CEO Anatoly Chubais will visit Sweden on November 19-20, 2009 to study the support that government offers for innovative developments, share with Sweden’s business and scientific communities the goals and principles that guide RUSNANO’s activities and discuss opportunities to collaborate in commercialization of nanotechnologies with their Swedish counterparts.

Canada hosted RUSNANO a few months back for similar purposes but interestingly there was no mention of studying “the support that government offers for innovative developments … ” and I’m not sure if it’s because there isn’t a support framework, official or otherwise, in Canada or if they failed to mention it in the news release. (I strongly suspect the former.) I blogged here about RUSNANO’s visit to Canada at the time.

Taking Sweden and the UK as examples, it would seem that European countries have both a European Union framework and an individual country framework for nanotechnology. The US has its National Nanotechnology Initiative (in place since 2000). China will provide some sort of insight into its nanotechnology plans via its road map series which I mentioned briefly here. Canada remains mute. You can view the National Institute of Nanotechnology’s website but you’d be hard pressed to find any details about an overall strategy for nanotechnology scientific research, public engagement, business support, education, social impact  etc. (Despite the institute’s name that’s probably not in their scope of responsibilities but I can’t find that information anywhere.) You will find a list of the institute’s research areas but you won’t find an overview of the Canadian nanotech research scene or much of anything else (to date they have distributed three news releases in 2009 and none in 2008 but 2007 was a banner year, there were four).

For a brief respite from the nano, Heather Haley’s See the Voice: Visible Verse 2009 (video poetry festival) is being held tonight (Thursday, November 19, 2009) at Pacific Cinematheque at 7:30 pm, 1131 Howe St. Vancouver, Canada. You can buy tickets or read more about it here.

Back to the international nanotechnology front: The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and UNITAR (United Nations Institute for Training and Research) are holding joint nanotechnology awareness workshops for transitional and developing countries. You can read more about them in the news item on Nanowerk.

Edited at 3:05 pm PST, Nov. 19.09 to change electronic poetry to video poetry.

UK strategy for investing in nanotech; new insight into titanium dioxide toxicology; creative nonfiction writing for scientists

It sounds promising. UK strategy for nanotechnology business investment is the title of a news item on Nanowerk which outlines the UK Technology Board’s investment strategy. From the news item,

The UK’s Technology Strategy Board has developed a nanotechnology strategy document (pdf download) that sets out the processes the Technology Strategy Board will use to determine how it will invest in the nanotechnology space in a way that helps UK businesses to succeed on a global scale. It is based on the fundamental premise that the technologies likely to see the most success will be those that result in developing materials and devices with new functionality that address markets driven by society’s greatest challenges.

The item goes on to outline the specific areas (environment/energy; aging population, media) where investments will be made but gives no details about the amount of funding available or the source for funds. Curious, I checked out the UK Technology’s Board’s site.  No details to be found on the About Us pages although there is a link to a  Dept. of Business Innovation and Skills (presumably a government department). My guess is that these are government funds and the board has decided to be discreet about the connection. I’m not ready to draw any conclusions; I’m just noticing.

I’ve been following  (somewhat lazily) discussions around titanium dioxide particles (widely used in sunscreens) and their possible toxicology. Nanoparticles used in common household goods caused genetic damage in mice on Nanowerk sheds some new light on the subject. From the news item,

In the past, these TiO2 [titanium dioxide] nanoparticles have been considered non-toxic in that they do not incite a chemical reaction. Instead, it is surface interactions that the nanoparticles have within their environment- in this case inside a mouse – that is causing the genetic damage, [Robert] Schiestl [professor of pathology, radiation oncology and environmental health sciences at Jonsson Cancer Center at the University of California, Los Angeles] said. They wander throughout the body causing oxidative stress, which can lead to cell death. It is a novel mechanism of toxicity, a physicochemical reaction, these particles cause in comparison to regular chemical toxins, which are the usual subjects of toxicological research, Schiestl said. “The novel principle is that titanium by itself is chemically inert. However, when the particles become progressively smaller, their surface, in turn, becomes progressively bigger and in the interaction of this surface with the environment oxidative stress is induced,” he said.

I have posted about titanium dioxide in the past, this posting is the most relevant to this discussion as it contains a reference to some work by Japanese researchers who demonstrated that titanium dioxide cause genetic damage in mice. Presumably building on this work, the researchers at Jonsson Cancer Center have determined a possible mechanism for how the damage is caused.

This is the first time I’ve seen a study that doesn’t ‘shrink’ standard toxicology to the nanoscale. For example, “carbon nanotubes look like asbestos fibres so we should test to find out if they have the same effect on lungs. ” This makes sense and it should be done. At the same time, I’m glad to see that researchers are taking into account the fact that materials at the nanoscale behave in novel ways leading to novel forms of toxicology.

I was intrigued to read Dr. Kristen Kulinowki’s opinion piece in  Azonano’s Nanotechnology Thought Leaders Series … insights from the world’s leading players.  Her piece titled, Temptation, Temptation, Temptation: Why Easy Answers About Nanomaterial Risk are Probably Wrong, provided some valuable insights for me about the work that has been done to collect information about nanomaterials and their potentials risks while citing some useful resources.

Before you go to read the article there are a few things you might want to keep in mind. There are a couple themes that are not followed through so the piece jumps around, the tone is problematic, and the academic style is sometimes inserted into a more chatty blog style. All of which made reading the opinion piece a little more work for me.

I got the impression that Kulinowski did not put much effort into writing this piece, i.e. she tossed it off. The chatty, casual style (a creative writing technique) takes a lot more effort and practice and is much more difficult to pull off  than most people realize, especially when you’re writing nonfiction. (Yes, some people are naturals but even they need to work at it if they plan to continue long term.)