Tag Archives: Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Socio-Technical Integration Research Workshop

The Synthetic Biology Project, a spin-off (of sorts) from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies based in Washington, DC, is hosting a two-day workshop (Feb. 16 and 17, 2011) called Socio-Technical Integration Research (STIR). It is the fourth in the series. From the event page,

The Socio-Technical Integration Research project is conducting a coordinated set of 20 laboratory engagement studies to assess and compare the varying pressures on, and capacities for, laboratories to integrate broader societal considerations into their work. These studies will be conducted by ten doctoral students and will be aimed at guiding research decisions toward responsible innovation.

Please join us on February 16th and 17th to discuss these vital issues with a distinguished gathering of laboratory directors, embedded social scientists and research councils from around the world.

Discussion topics will include:

• Experiences in synergistically enhancing the creativity and responsibility of scientific research, • Responsible innovation from the viewpoints of natural scientists, social scientists and research agencies, and • The establishment of an international network of scientists and research agencies working toward responsible innovation.

STIR seeks to establish an International Network for Responsible Innovation and is organized under the auspices of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University.

They ask anyone who plans to attend to RSVP or you can watch the webcast live (no need to RSVP the webcast).

I looked at the agenda for the event and unexpectedly found a Vancouver connection. One of the sessions is titled: Political Science and Genetics in Vancouver. It’s scheduled to be given by Shannon Conley and Courtney Hanna (PhD student in the Robinson Lab at the Children’s and Women’s Health Centre of British Columbia).

If you happen to take a look at the event agenda for yourself, you’ll also notice a fair sprinkling of nanotechnology-tinged presentations included in this workshop.

Research directions for societal needs to 2020 webcast

A while back (my October 13, 2010 posting) I mentioned a day-long nanotechnology consultation workshop that was live-streamed by the World Technology Evaluation Center (WTEC). At the time it was billed as a launch for a study (Nanotechnology Long-Term Impacts and Research Directions: 2000-2020) but it seems the study may have been a draft report and the workshop part of a larger consultation process. I’m guessing that’s the case after looking at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnolgies’ (PEN) latest invitation,

A new report, “Nanotechnology Research Directions for Societal Needs in 2020” outlines the foundational knowledge and infrastructure development in the last decade, the current ~$15 billion in R&D programs underpinning about $250 billion of products incorporating nanoscale components in the world in 2009, and the likely evolution towards a general purpose technology by 2020. The study includes opinions of leading experts from over 35 countries and brainstorming meetings hosted by the Word Technology Evaluation Center (WTEC) in 2010 in Chicago, Hamburg, Tokyo, Singapore and Arlington, VA.

When: Wednesday, December 1, 2010, 12:30 – 1:30 PM (ET

(Light lunch available at 12:00 noon)

If you’re planning on attending in person in Washington, DC, they ask that you RSVP here: http://www.nanotechproject.org/events/archive/researchdirections/.

You can can go here to view the live webcast on Dec. 1,2010.

The invitation with all the details has been posted on Nanowerk.

Voluntary regulation and oversight for nanotechnology: a review

It’s been a while since I’ve had an invite for a Project on Emerging Technologies (PEN) event. November 4, 2010, the organization will be hosting an event hosting the release of a new report (from the news release),

Join us on Thursday, November 4, 2010, at 12:30 p.m. for the release of Voluntary Initiatives, Regulation, and Nanotechnology Oversight: Charting a Path, a new PEN report by Dr. Daniel Fiorino followed by a commentary by J. Clarence (Terry) Davies.“This report is the most extensive analysis done to date of how voluntary programs can be applied to managing nanotechnology’s possible environmental and health effects,” said David Rejeski, Director of the project. “The report’s analysis and recommendations extend beyond nanotechnology to the newer generation challenges that we face as science rapidly advances.”

Given that most voluntary programmes run by governments have been deemed a failure, I’m quite interested in hearing about how voluntary programmes could be better implemented.

If you’re in Washington, DC and want to attend in person, you will need to RSVP for the event (they’re serving a light lunch at 12 noon EST) which takes place from 12:30 pm to 1:30 pm EST.

The event is livestreamed in a webcast.

When is a nano-enabled product not nano-enabled?

Dietram Scheufele over at nanopublic has highlighted some research that David Berube (author of Nanohype—book and blog and professor at the University of North Carolina) and colleagues have published in Nanotechnology Law & Business (research article is behind a paywall). From Dietram’s July 3, 2010 blog posting (I’m unable to link to the specific post, so please scroll to or hunt for the date) about Berube’s research into the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies’ (PEN) Consumer Products Inventory (CPI),

The article takes a critical look at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) consumer product inventory. The inventory has been used widely as a gauge of the number and types of nano consumer products currently on the U.S. market.

… [the authors concluded]

“that the CPI is not wholly reliable, and does not have sufficient validity to justify its prominence as evidence for claims associated with the pervasiveness of nanotechnology on the U.S. and global markets. In addition, we caution researchers to approach the CPI with care and due consideration because using the CPI as a rhetorical flourish to amplify concerns about market intrusions seems unjustified.”

In other words, use the CPI with care. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to read Berube’s paper but I did go to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies website and looked at the criteria for inclusion in the CPI where PEN clearly states the inventory’s limitations,

Selection of products

Most products in this inventory satisfy three criteria:

1. They can be readily purchased by consumers, and

2. They are identified as nano-based by the manufacturer OR another source, and

3. The nano-based claims for the product appear reasonable.

In every instance, we have tried to identify specific products from specific producers. However, since nanotechnology has broad applications in a variety of fields, we have included a number of “generic” products that you can find in many places on the market such as computer processor chips. These are clearly labeled in the inventory. In some cases, companies offer several similar nanotechnology-based products and product lines. To reduce redundancy, we have just included a few samples in this inventory and hope that they will provide an initial baseline for understanding how nanotechnology is being commercialized.

There are probably some products in the inventory which producers allege are “nano,” but which may not be. We have made no attempt to verify manufacturer claims about the use of nanotechnology in these products, nor have we conducted any independent testing of the products. We have tried to avoid including products that clearly do not use nanotechnology, but some have undoubtedly slipped through.

Finally, some products are marked “Archive” to indicate that their availability can no longer be ascertained. When these products were added to the inventory we included live links, but since then the company may have discontinued the product, gone out of business, removed a self-identifying “nano” claim or simply changed their web address. In these instances we have attempted to locate a cached version of the product website using The Internet Archive.

I imagine that despite PEN’s clearly statements some folks have referenced it carelessly hence the concern about using it as hype from Berube and his colleagues.

The bit about manufacturers removing the ‘nano’ claim hit home since I did some research into washers that use nanosilver. A friend was disturbed by a recent article about them and I remembered that the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) had made a special designation for these types of washers. As it turns out, I got it 1/2 right. From the December 4, 2006 article by Susan Morissey in Chemical and Engineering News,

Silver—claimed to be nanoparticles—employed to kill bacteria in washing machines will now be regulated as a pesticide, EPA announced late last month. Currently, washers that generate silver ions are classified as devices and are not required to be registered with EPA.

The products at issue are Samsung washing machines that are advertised as using silver ions to kill 99.9% of odor-causing bacteria. This technology, called SilverCare, generates ions by applying current to two silver plates housed next to the machine’s tub. The ions are then directed into the tub during the wash cycle.

“EPA has determined that the Samsung silver ion-generating washing machine is subject to registration requirements under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide & Rodenticide Act,” according to an EPA statement. The agency decided to change the classification of the washer because it releases silver ions into the laundry “for the purpose of killing microbial pests,” the statement explains.

For its part, Samsung has pledged to comply with the change of policy. “Samsung has and will continue to work with EPA and state regulators regarding regulation of the silver washing machine,” the company says.

Several groups concerned about the environmental impact of nanoparticles of silver had asked EPA to reevaluate the way products containing such materials are regulated. For example, environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) noted in a letter to EPA that there are currently more than 40 products on the market in addition to Samsung’s washing machine that have made or implied claims of using nanoparticles of silver to kill bacteria.

NRDC praised EPA for taking what it called a “step in the right direction” by reclassifying nanosilver generated in a washer as a pesticide. The group also said this revised policy should lead to EPA reassessing other products that use nanoparticles of silver for their biocidal qualities.

A pesticide is not exactly a special designation but it certainly is unique as applied to clothes washers. The EPA announcement was made around the US Thanksgiving period (late November) according to a December 6, 2006 article by Scott E. Rickert in Industry Week. From Rickert’s article,

First, let’s backtrack and get the facts behind the headline. The trigger for the EPA decision was a Samsung washing machine. The “SilverWash” contains silver nanoparticles and claims that it helps to kill bacteria in clothes by releasing silver ions into the water during the wash.

Various U.S water authorities became concerned that discharged nanosilver might accumulate in the water system, particularly in wastewater treatment plants where beneficial bacteria are used to purify water of its toxins. This opinion means that nanosilver could be viewed as an environmental pesticide, requiring the product to be registered and tested under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. In the words of EPA spokesperson Jennifer Wood, “The release of silver ions in the washing machines is a pesticide, because it is a substance released into the laundry for the purpose of killing pests.”

So what does this really mean to nano-industry? Specifically, we’re not sure yet. It will take several months for the final rules to be detailed in the Federal Register. But some of the early responses have me scratching my head.

One company has removed any reference to nanosilver from their marketing information for antimicrobial devices. Apparently, in the short run, that excludes them from any ruling. As Jim Jones, director of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, said, “Unless you’re making a claim to kill a pest, you’re not a pesticide.”

This is not a simple ‘good guy vs. bad guy’ situation. Defining nanotechnology, nanoparticles, nanomaterials, etc. is a work in progress which makes attempts to regulate products and production in this area an even earlier work in progress. This situation is not confined to the US or to Canada. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be confined to any one country, which makes the situation applicable globally.

There is work being done and changes instituted, for example, the EPA has announced (from the PEN website),

At an April 29 presentation to the Pesticide Programs Dialogue Committee in Washington, D.C. EPA’s William Jordan announced a new working definition of nanomaterials as “an ingredient that contains particles that have been intentionally produced to have at least one dimension that measures between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers.” In addition EPA is preparing a Federal Register Announcement due out in June which announces a new interpretation of FIFRA/regulations and proposes a new policy stating that the presence of a nanoscale material in a pesticide product is reportable under FIFRA section 6(a)(2) and applies to already registered products as well as products pending registration.

As well, statements from the NanoBusiness Alliance suggest (in a previous posting on this blog) that there is some support within the business community for thoughtful regulation. As to what thoughtful means in this context, I think that’s something we, as a a society, need to work out.

Science and politics

I was gobsmacked by a link I followed from a Foresight Institute posting about a nanotechnologist running for the US Congress. From the Foresight posting (which was kept rigidly nonpartisan),

Bill McDonald brings to our attention the U.S. Congressional campaign of Mike Stopa, a Harvard nanotechnologist and physicist.

This is probably the first time that a nanotechnologist has run for Congress.

However, his profession may not get much attention, as his campaign is focusing on other issues.

I too am going to be rigidly nonpartisan as my interest here is in a kind of thought experiment: What happens if you read the campaign literature and realize that the  scientist running for political office can’t manage a logical thought process or argument outside her or his own specialty?

I think there’s an assumption that because someone is a scientist that the individual will be able to present logical arguments and come to thoughtful decisions. I’m not saying that one has to agree with the scientist just that the thinking and decisionmaking process should be cohesive but that’s not fair. Humans are messy. We can hold competing and incompatible opinions and we rationalize them when challenged. Since scientists are human (for the near future anyway), then they too are prey to both the messiness of the human condition and, by extension, the democratic process.

I’m going to continue ruminating on science and politics as I am increasingly struck by a sense that there is a trend toward incorporating more and more voices into processes (public consultation on science issues, on housing issues, on cultural issues, etc.) that were the domain of experts or policymakers simultaneous with attempts to either suppress that participation by arranging consultations in situations that are already decided or to suggest that too much participation is taking us into a state of chaos and rendering democracy as per public consultations untenable. Well, that was a mouthful.

As scientists and politics in other countries, do take a look at this Pasco Phronesis posting,

The Conservative Party [UK], when it was still shadowing the Brown government, indicated that it would require all new Members of Parliament in the party to take some training in basic science concepts [emphases mine] as part of their new member training. This was back in 2008, and would take place after the next election (which was to happen at some unspecified point in the future when the announcement was made).

While there is a new person responsible for science for the Conservatives, the plan will be put into action…and expanded.

This notion is along the lines that Preston Manning (founder of the Reform Party and the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance Party [now absorbed by the Conservative Party] in Canada and opposition science critic) has been suggesting. Since leaving the political life, Manning has founded the Manning Centre and continues with his commentary on science and other issues.

That’s it for today.

Synbio (Synthetic Biology) in society a May 12, 2010 panel discussion hosted by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

The proper title for this event, hosted by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) is: Synbio in Society: Toward New Forms of Collaboration? which will be webcast live (I hope they’re able to pull that off this time) this coming Wednesday, May 12, 2010.  The time is listed as 12:30 pm ET (9:30 am PT) but a light lunch (for attendees at the Washington, DC live event) is also mentioned and the folks at PEN haven’t distinguished (as per their usual practice) the time that the panel starts.

From the news release,

One response to society’s concerns about synthetic biology has been to institutionalize the involvement of social scientists in the field. There have been a series of initiatives in which ethics and biosafety approaches have been purposely incorporated into synthetic biology research and development. The collaborative Human Practices model within the NSF-funded SynBERC project was the first initiative in which social scientists were explicitly integrated into a synthetic biology research program. But these new collaborations have also flourished in the UK where four research councils have funded seven scientific networks in synthetic biology that require consideration of ethical, legal and social issues. Another example is the US-UK Synthetic Aesthetics Project, which brings together synthetic biologists, social scientists, designers and artists to explore collaborations between synthetic biology and the creative professions.

Similarly, the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme funds projects like Synth-ethics, which “aims at discerning relevant ethical issues in close collaboration with the synthetic biology community.” (http://synthethics.eu/) and SYBHEL, which aims to examine ethical legal and social aspects of SynBio as it applies to health care (http://sybhel.org/).

On May 12, 2010, the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars will present a panel discussion to explore new forms of collaboration that have emerged between scientists and social scientists working on synthetic biology. A distinguished group of speakers will explore the many ways in which the new science of synthetic biology–far from standing apart from the rest of the academic disciplines–is in constant conversation with the social sciences and the arts.

While I’m not a big fan of the whole synthetic biology movement, I do find this collaboration between sciences/social sciences/arts to be quite intriguing.

You can read more about the event or click on to the live streaming webcast on Weds. or RSVP to attend the actual event here.

Quite by chance I found out that Canada’s National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) includes synthetic biology in its programme focus. From the Nano Life Sciences at NINT page,

The Nano Life Sciences researchers investigate the fields of synthetic biology, computational biology, protein structure, intermolecular membrane dynamics and microfluidics devices for biological analysis.

* Synthetic biology is a young field that uses genetic engineering and DNA synthesis to develop new proteins and genetic circuits. Proteins are the nanoscale machinery of life while genetic circuits represent computational “logic” capabilities in cells. Research in this field could lead to a “toolkit” for “re-programming” bacteria to produce useful functions.

I haven’t been able to find any more details about the Canadian synbio endeavour on the NINT website.

Oil spills, environmental remediation, and nanotechnology

Oil spills have been on my mind lately as I’ve caught some of the overage about the BP (British Petroleum) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One  leak (the smallest) has been fixed according to a news item on physorg.com

Days of work off the coast of Louisiana with underwater submarines nearly a mile below the surface finally bore fruit as a valve was secured over the smallest of the three leaks and the flow shut off.

The feat does not alter the overall amount of crude spilling into the sea and threatening the fragile US Gulf coast, but is significant nonetheless as the focus can now narrow on just two remaining leaks.

“Working with two leaks is going to be a lot easier than working with three leaks. Progress is being made,” US Coast Guard Petty Officer Brandon Blackwell told AFP.

More than two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, the full impact of the disaster is being realized as a massive slick looms off the US Gulf coast, imperilling the livelihoods of shoreline communities.

The news item goes on to detail how much crude oil is still being lost, the oil slick’s progress, the probable impact on the shoreline and animals, and the other efforts being made to ameliorate the situation.

With all the talk there is about nanotechnology’s potential for helping us to clean up these messes, there’s been no mention of it in the current  efforts as Dexter Johnson over at the IEEE’s (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers)  Nanoclast blog pointed out the other day. From Dexter’s posting which features both a  discussion about patents for nanotechnology-enabled clean up products and an interview with Tim Harper,

So to get a sense of where we really are I wanted to get the perspective of my colleague, Tim Harper (principal of Cientifica), who in addition to being a noted expert on the commercialization of nanotechnologies also has devoted his attention to the use of nanotechnologies in cleantech including its remediation capabilities, leading him to his presentation this week in Australia at the conference Cleantech Science and Solutions: mainstream and at the edge.

“If you are looking for a quick fix from nanotechnology, forget it,” says Harper. “Nanotech is already making an impact in reducing energy, and therefore oil use, it is also being used to create stronger lighter materials that can be used for pipelines, and enabling better sensors for early warning of damage, but in terms of cleaning up the mess, the contribution is minor at best.”

Clearly not the hopeful words that many would have hoped for, and the pity is that it might have been different, according to Harper.

“As with all technologies, the applications take a while to develop,” he says. “If someone had come up with some funding 10 years ago for this specific application then we may have had better tools to deal with it.”

Dexter’s posting about patents and Harper’s comments reminded me of an article by Mason Inman I saw two years ago on the New Scientist website titled, Nanotech ’tissue’ loves oil spills, hates water. From the article,

A material with remarkable oil-absorbing properties has been developed by US researchers. It could help develop high-tech “towels” able to soak up oil spills at sea faster, protecting wildlife and human health.

Almost 200,000 tonnes of oil have been spilled at sea in accidents since the start of the decade, according to the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation. [This article was posted May 30, 2008]

Clean-up methods have improved in recent years, but separating oil from thousands of gallons of water is still difficult and perhaps the biggest barrier to faster clean ups.

The new water-repellent material is based on manganese oxide nanowires and could provide a blueprint for a new generation of oil-spill cleaners. It is able to absorb up to 20 times its own weight in oil, without sucking up a drop of water.


But [Joerg] Lahann [University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, US]  points out that manganese oxide may not be the best material for real-world applications because it could be toxic. He says, though, that the new material “clearly provides a blueprint that can guide the design of future nanomaterials for environmental applications.”

I wonder if they’ve done any research to determine if manganese oxide in the shape and size required to create this nanotech ’tissue’ is toxic. Intriguingly, there was a recent news item on Nanowerk about toxicology research in a marine environment being undertaken.

Led by Dr. Emilien Pelletier, the Institut des Sciences de la Mer de Rimouski at the Université du Québec à Rimouski has obtained an LVEM5 benchtop electron microscope to help them study the short-term and long-term effects of nano-materials on the marine environment.

Dr. Pelletier is the Canada Research Chair in Marine Ecotoxicology. The overall objective of the chair is to understand the impact of natural and anthropogenic stresses on the short-and long-term high-latitude coastal ecosystems to contribute to the conservation, protection and sustainable development of cold coastal marine resources.

Since the news release was written by the company supplying the microscope there is no word as to exactly what Emilien’s team will be researching and how the work might have an impact on other members of the community such as the researchers with the ‘oil-hungry nanotech tissue’ made of nanoscale manganese oxide.

There is as always a political element to all of this discussion about what we could or couldn’t do with nanotechnology-enabled means to clean up oil spills and/or reduce/eliminate our dependence on oil. This discussion is not new as Dr. J. Storrs Hall implies during a presentation being reported in a recent (May 4, 2010) Foresight Institute blog entry by Dave Cronz, PhD. From the posting,

Here I offer my reflections on some of the highlights of the presentation by Dr. J. Storrs Hall of the Foresight Institute, entitled “Feynman’s Pathway to Nanomanufacturing,” and the panel discussion that followed, “How Do We Get There from Here?” Discussions such as these are crucial opportunities to reflect on – and potentially shape – emerging technologies whose destinies are often left to be determined by “market forces.”

Dr. Hall began with an intriguing argument: Feynman’s top-down approach to reaching the nano scale in manufacturing, achieved through a step-down method of replicating and miniaturizing an entire, fully-equipped machine shop in 1:4 scale over and over would yield countless benefits to science, engineering, and manufacturing at each step. These microscopic, tele-manipulated master-slave “Waldos” (named after Heinlein’s 1942 story “Waldo F. Jones”) would get nanotechnology back on track by focusing on machines and manufacturing, since most of our current emphasis is on science at the nano scale. Feynman’s top-down approach to nanoscale manufacturing is missing from the Foresight Institute’s roadmap, according to Hall, “for political reasons.” This raises a fundamental point: science and technology cannot develop independent of the political and social spheres, which pose as many challenges as the technology. Many would argue that social and technological processes are inseparable and treating them otherwise borders on folly. I commend Dr. Hall for offering his argument. It soon became clear that the panelists who joined him after his presentation disagreed. [bolded emphases mine]

As Dr. Hall aptly noted it’s not dispassionate calculations but “serendipity: the way science always works.”

I’m in agreement with Dr. Hall, the political and social spheres are inseparable from the scientific and technological spheres. As for “emerging technologies whose destinies  are often left to be determined by market forces”, Dexter’s posting ends with this,

But foresight is not the strong suit of businesses built around short-term profit motives as evidenced by them [BP] not even investing in the remote systems that would have turned the oil well off and possibly avoided the entire problem.

I strongly recommend reading Dexter’s posting to get the nuances and to explore his links.

I’m going to finish on a faint note of hope. There is work being done on site remediation and it seems to be successful, i.e., nonpolluting, less disruptive to the environment, and cheaper.  The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) has a webcast of a presentation titled, Contaminated Site Remediation: Are Nanomaterials the Answer?. You can find my comments about the webcast here (scoll down a bit) and PEN’s Nanoremediation Map which lists projects around the world although most are in the US. It’s incomplete since there is no requirement to report a nanoremediation site to PEN but it does give you an idea of what’s going on. Canada has two sites on the map.

Reinventing technology assessment or why should I start thinking about how to make better decisions about science and technology?

I think a better title for this posting might have been Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (old movie title) as it’s got the right rhythm unfortunately the sentiment isn’t quite right (although quite close in some places) for this discussion about technology assessment along with the notion of unimpeded science ‘progress’.

Yesterday April 28, 2010, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) held an event to launch a new report, Reinventing Technology Assessment for the 21st Century by Richard Sclove. (It’s the second time that PEN has not offered a live webcast of one of these events and I hope this is due to technical difficulties rather than financial.) The description for the event and link to the report and the speaker’s presentation can be found here.

I’m going to briefly discuss Richard Sclove’s  presentation slides  (and will see the webcast, which hopefully has been made, when it’s posted in a few weeks).  He offers a brief history of technology assessment (TA) in the US (an office was opened in 1972 and closed in 1995) and brief description of what it was supposed to accomplish. From the presentation,

Technology Assessment

Enhances societal understanding
of the broad implications of
science and technology, and
improves decision-making.

The presenter, Richard Sclove, also notes that there are now 18 TA agencies in Europe and makes the case that TA is important. What I found particularly interesting in the presentation is his focus on participatory TA. He’s not interested in simply reinstating the TA office in the US but in broadening engagement in the technology assessment process which is why his presentation and report use the word reinvention.

The suggestion for participation in TA is certainly in line with the current interest in involving citizens in all kinds of work, e.g. citizen scientists (an earlier blog posting) and citizen archivists (earlier blog posting) where volunteers work along aside professionals on certain projects. There is also a similarity to public engagement where experts and citizens meet to discuss emerging technology with the intent that the experts will take these meetings into account when decisionmaking. Sclove’s particular project (he is launching a project based on his report) seems to integrate the two approaches by formalizing the public engagement aspect beyond a series of meetings and/or workshops into a working relationship such as one between a citizen scientist and a professional scientist.

I find Sclove’s concept appealing and was made to reconsider it after reading Andrew Maynard’s (over at his 2020 Science blog) thoughts about the concept of TA. From Andrew’s posting,

It [TA] is based on the assumption that, if only we can get some insight into where a particular technology innovation is going and what the broader social and economic consequences might be, we should be able to tweak the system to increase the benefits and decrease the downsides.

As an idea, it’s an attractive one. Having the foresight to identify potential hurdles to progress ahead of time and make decisions that help overcome them at an early stage makes sound sense. If businesses wants to develop products that are sustainable over long periods, governments want to craft policies that have long-reaching positive consequences and citizens want to support actions that will benefit them and their children, any intelligence on the potential benefits and pitfalls associated with a new technology is invaluable to informed decision-making.

The trouble is, making sense of a complex future where technology, social issues, politics, economics and sheer human irrationality collide, is anything but straight forward.

It’s the dynamic nature of an emerging technology, as he points out, that makes all of the decisionmaking and regulatory development so very challenging. Andrew also contrasts the traditional TA concepts with the ideas in a book (Bad Ideas? An arresting history of our inventions) by Robert Winston who cautions against society’s blind assumption that the adoption of an emerging science or technology is both inevitable and good. You can certainly see that attitude in some of the information about nanotechnology. Even Andrew Schneider (earlier posting discussing the contretemps) who has roundly criticized the National Nanotechnology Initiative’s efforts assumes that nanotechnology’s adoption is inevitable.

Do read the posting and the comments. Richard Sclove dropped in and I offer this one excerpt from his comment,

Early on your mention that technology assessment (TA) “is based on the assumption that, if only we can get some insight into where a particular technology innovation is going . . . we should be able to tweak the system to increase the benefits and decrease the downsides.” As written, that is exactly right. Although if you read my report carefully, you’ll see that I’m interested in seeing if we can push the capability of TA (both participatory and not) to move beyond only studying one “particular technology” at a time to also considering the synergistic interactions among complexes of (seemingly unrelated) techs.

I noticed that nowhere in Sclove’s full comment does he address the much thornier issue of whether we must adopt an emerging science or technology simply because we can. You can learn more about Sclove’s project, the Expert & Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST) project here. I notice the founding partners include PEN and the Science Cheerleader which has been mentioned here from time to time (notably in the posting about citizen scientists).