Tag Archives: research

Love letter to the British Library

It happened in 2000 and I had no hint of it when I stepped through the doors of the British Library on the last afternoon of my trip to London. A fellow traveler had raved about one of the exhibits (I think it was called 1000 years of English literature) the day before my visit, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered.

It awoke in me a passion I don’t often share but was roused again when I came across an article on Techdirt (by way of Michael Geist) about the British Library’s latest publication on copyright. From Mike Masnick’s article,

The paper brings together 13 different researchers to all share their opinions, and the general consensus appears to be that copyright today is a serious problem in need of reform (and, no, the “Digital Economy Act” in the UK didn’t help at all). Basically, the key points are that copyright shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of research activities.

You can download a copy of the paper, Driving UK Research — Is copyright a help or a hindrance?, from Techdirt.

Dame Lynne Brindley, the Chief Executive Officer for the British Library had this to say in her introduction to the paper,

There is a supreme irony that just as technology is allowing greater access to books and other creative works than ever before for education and research, new restrictions threaten to lock away digital content in a way we would never countenance for printed material.

Let’s not wake up in five years’ time and realise we have unwittingly lost a fundamental building block for innovation, education and research in the UK. Who is protecting the public interest in the digital world? We need to redefine copyright in the digital age and find a balance to benefit creators, educators, researchers, the creative industries – and the knowledge economy. (p. 3)

Thirteen researchers and writers discuss how copyright has an impact on all kinds of research (music, theatre, law, the sciences, etc.) and some of the problems associated with using laws designed for print  in a digital world. Dr. Dave Roberts and Vince Smith of the Natural History Museum offer their take on the problems with copyright and scientists along with suggestions for improvements,

For working scientists copyright is at best an irritation and at worst an obstruction. The process of science requires the sharing of results so that both the individual researcher and their institution build reputation and the esteem of their peers through recognition of the quality of their work. Traditionally this has been done by publication on paper and has been characterised as a workflow where scientists, the majority of whom these days are publicly funded, create manuscripts that they submit to publishers, who get other scientists to evaluate and comment on the work (peer review). The publisher sells the result back to the scientists. In the classic model, used to defend copyright, the money made by publishers is apportioned between the creator (author) and the publisher. In science, not only does the author not see any money from their work, but the publisher demands an exclusive right to that income in perpetuity.

For scientific publishing:

• We urgently need to separate cases where there is substantial loss of income to a content creator though content dissemination (e.g. a professional musician) from those that make no income from dissemination and rely on this as part of their scholarly activities (e.g. a professional scientist). A positive start could be made by removing copyright restrictions on material older than, say, two years from its original publication date.

• Orphan works should be placed in the public domain.

• Making copies for strictly archival purposes should not be subject to copyright control. Libraries in particular should be able to preserve digital copies in perpetuity, which technologically means regularly making copies.

I’m not sure I buy their musician example as someone who suffers from a loss of income as a consequence of content dissemination when many musicians (including some famous ones) are giving away downloads of their music and exploring new business models but the suggestions themselves seem quite reasonable.

Thank you British Library for reminding me how much I love you. (blowing kisses from Canada’s West Coast).

Nanotechnology and sunscreens: recalibrating positions and the excruciating business of getting it as right as possible

I’ve been waiting for Andrew Maynard’s comments (on his 2020 Science blog) about the Friends of the Earth (FoE) guest bloggers’ (Georgia Miller and Ian Illuminato) response (ETA June 6, 2016: Just how risky can nanoparticles in sunscreens be? Friends of the Earth respond; a 2020 Science blog June 15, 2010 posting) to his posting (Just how risky could nanoparticles in sunscreens be?) where he challenged them to quantify the nanosunscreen risk to consumers.  His reflections on the FoE response and the subsequent discussion are well worth reading. From Andrew’s posting, The safety of nanotechnology-based sunscreens – some reflections,

Getting nanomaterials’ use in context. First, Georgia and Ian, very appropriately in my opinion, brought up the societal context within which new technologies and products are developed and used:

“why not support a discussion about the role of the precautionary principle in the management of uncertain new risks associated with emerging technologies? Why not explore the importance of public choice in the exposure to these risks? Why not contribute to a critical discussion about whose interests are served by the premature commercialisation of products about whose safety we know so little, when there is preliminary evidence of risk and very limited public benefit.”

Andrew again,

… we need to think carefully about how we use scientific knowledge and data – “evidence” – in making decisions.

As he goes on to point out, cherrypicking data isn’t a substantive means of supporting your position over the long run.

Unfortunately it’s a common practice on all sides ranging from policymakers, politicians, civil society groups, consumers, medical institutions, etc. and these days we don’t have the luxury, ignorance about downsides such as pollution and chemical poisoning on a global scale for example, that previous generations enjoyed.

Three of the scientists whose work was cited by FoE as proof that nanosunscreens are dangerous either posted directly or asked Andrew to post comments which clarified the situation with exquisite care,

Despite FoE’s implications that nanoparticles in sunscreens might cause cancer because they are photoactive, Peter Dobson points out that there are nanomaterials used in sunscreens that are designed not to be photoactive. Brian Gulson, who’s work on zinc skin penetration was cited by FoE, points out that his studies only show conclusively that zinc atoms or ions can pass through the skin, not that nanoparticles can pass through. He also notes that the amount of zinc penetration from zinc-based sunscreens is very much lower than the level of zinc people have in their body in the first place. Tilman Butz, who led one of the largest projects on nanoparticle penetration through skin to date, points out that – based on current understanding – the nanoparticles used in sunscreens are too large to penetrate through the skin.

These three comments alone begin to cast the potential risks associated with nanomaterials in sunscreens in a very different light to that presented by FoE. Certainly there are still uncertainties about the possible consequences of using these materials – no-one is denying that. But the weight of evidence suggests that nanomaterials within sunscreens – if engineered and used appropriately – do not present a clear and present threat to human health.

Go to the comments section of the 2020 Science blog for the full text of Peter Dobson’s response, Brian Gulson’s response posted by Andrew on Gulson’s behalf, and Tilman Butz’s response posted by Andrew on Butz’s behalf. (I found these comments very helpful as I had made the mistake of assuming that there was proof that nanoparticles do penetrate the skin barrier [as per my posting of June 23, 2010].)

I want to point out that the stakes are quite high despite the fact that sunscreens are classified as a cosmetic. I’ve heard at least one commentator (Pat Roy Mooney of The ETC Group, Interview at 2009 Elevate Festival at 4:32) scoff because nanotechnology is being used in cosmetics as if it’s frivolous. Given the important role sunscreens play in our health these days, a safe sunscreen has to be high on the list of most people’s priorities but this leads to a question.

Should we stop developing more effective nanotechnology-enabled sunscreens (and by extension, other nanotechnology-enabled products) due to concern that we may cause more harm than good?

Andrew goes on to provide some interesting insight into the issue citing the Precautionary Principle and supplementing his comments with some of Richard Jones’ (author of Soft Machines book and blog and consultant to UK government on various nanotechnology topics) suggestions to refine the Precautionary Principle guidelines,

1. what are the benefits that the new technology provides – what are the risks and uncertainties associated with not realising these benefits?

2. what are the risks and uncertainties attached to any current ways we have of realising these benefits using existing technologies?

3. what are the risks and uncertainties of the new technology?

I strongly suggest that anyone interested in the issues around risk, the precautionary principle, emerging technologies, and the role of research read this posting (as well as its predecessors) and as much of the discussion as you can manage.

One additional thought which was posited in the comments section by Hilary Sutcliffe (you’ll need to scroll the comments as I haven’t figured out how to create a direct link to her comment) has to do with the role that companies have with regard to their research and making it available in the discussion about health, safety, and the environment (HSE),

… we need to be able to access ‘the best available information’ in order to make informed decisions in the face of uncertainty and enable the rounded assessment that Prof Richard Jones suggests. This is indeed essential, but ‘we’ are usually constrained by the lack of one very large chunk of ‘available information’ which is the HSE testing the companies themselves have done which leads them to judge the material or product they have developed is safe.

Further in the comment she goes on to discuss a project (What’s fair to share?) that her organization (MATTER) is planning where they want to discuss how companies can share their HSE data without giving away intellectual property and/or competitive advantages.

Finally, I want to paraphrase something I said elsewhere. While I am critical of the tactics used by the Friends of the Earth in this instance, there is no doubt in my mind that the organization and other civil society groups serve a very important role in raising much needed discussion about nanotechnology risks.

Global TV (national edition) and nanotechnology; EPA develops a ‘kinder to animals’ nanomaterials research strategy

Wouldn’t you know it? Just as soon as I finish my ‘science communication in Canada’ series, Global TV’s national news starts broadcasting a series on nanotechnology. Interestingly, the focus in part 1 is on medicine only. There was no mention of any other kind of application or the fact that we already have many nanotechnology-based products available in consumer markets. Maybe they’ll mention these other sectors in subsequent parts of the series.

They too (it was one of the problems I mentioned at my recent conference talk at ISEA 2009) were stuck for ways of communicating nanotechnology and so reverted to the human hair example (i.e. a nanometer = 1/100,000 of a human hair). I f you want to see part 1 of the series, it’s here.  Oh, they have beautiful graphics.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced a nanomaterials research strategy which I mentioned here in my Oct. 1, 2009 posting and they’ve already revised it. This time it’s all about the animals. According to the news item on Azonano,

Importantly, the research strategy articulates the goal of identifying non-animal methods that may ultimately be able to preclude the perceived need for any in vivo testing. The EPA appears to have taken to heart the principles outlined in the National Academy of Sciences’ report ‘Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century: A Vision and a Strategy,’ which calls for increased use of current non-animal technologies and biological understanding that is more precise, relevant, and that will improve hazard assessment.

There’s more at Azonano. I’m glad to see that the effort to move away from animal testing is being embraced.

Numbers of published nano articles, China, and Canada’s nanotech

Nature Nanotechnology published an editorial in their June 2008 issue about which countries have published the most articles and which are most often cited. In examining their own journal and a couple studies, they found that the US has published the most with China coming up quickly to overtake US output in the near future.

How do you attribute an article to a country? In these studies, they looked at the lead author’s affiliation. For number freaks, Nature Nanotechnology published 94 letters and 55 articles with 47.6% of the authors being located in the US, followed by 8% from the UK, 7.4% from Japan and 6.7% from Germany. I guess the rest of us make up the other 30% or so. The figures about the China’s articles come from other studies that the editorial cites. (I’d link to Nature Nanotech but the journal’s latest issues are behind a paywall. They’ll let you sniff some of the cheese but you won’t be able to take a bite for at least a year.)

One point they do make is that the Chinese articles aren’t cited as often as US articles or even Japanese articles (China’s output has been higher than Japan’s since 1990). All of which is interesting since, citations are one measure of quality and/or influence. I think it’s safe to assume that  they’re talking about articles that were written in English so we’re not looking at language issues. Still, I can think of at least one reason why work from China might not be cited as often: geopolitical tensions.

Here’s another suggestion: where are the Chinese authors getting published? If your work isn’t being published in journals that other interested parties are reading, how are you going to get cited? (Brief related story) I do research for a psychiatrist (he specializes in pain management) who’s interested in checking out some of the latest research on morphine. I have two entirely separate research tracks each with their own specialized vocabularies and specialty-specific journals. If I use the wrong words, I won’t find the other research material. (Back to the nano) So now there are two other possible problems. Researchers casually thumbing through Nature Nanotechnology are not going to see many articles from China (as per the June 2008 editorial) and, if Chinese researchers are using the vocabulary differently, standard keyword research strategies aren’t going to  lead you to their work.

As for the Canadian nanotechnology scene, we don’t seem to be on the radar for either Nature Nanotechnology or the two studies they cited. I’m a little curious about that since there was a presenter at the 2008 Cascadia Nanotechnology Symposium in March who focussed on numbers of articles published by Canadian nano researchers. As I recall, he indicated that our numbers are pretty healthy.  I’m trying to track that info. down but I can’t find M. Fatih Yegul’s (University of Waterloo) presentation on the symposium website or any other published version of his information.

Social science and nanotechnology (Canadian or otherwise)

They sure don’t make it easy to find but there is a way to search Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council awards for research. I ran a search for nanotechnology projects spanning the 2005-6 and 2006-7 fiscal years and found four projects. Two at the University of Alberta and two at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Hmmm….here are the titles (and researchers and universitites):

  • Giorgio Agamben’s political ontologies: a study of biopower, biopolitics, and nanotechnology. (Charles A Barbour at the U of A)
  • A field perspective on nanotechnology path creation: an examination of carbon nanotubes. (Michael Lounsbury at the U of A)
  • Opportunity creation from the confluence of technologies. (Eliicia Maine, SFU)
  • Bionanotechnology in British Columbia: conceptualizations of social implications. (Karen M Woods, SFU)

Those were all awarded in 2006. For fun, I went back to the 2001-2 fiscal year and found one other researcher (she got two grants for the same project) in 2003-4

  • Weaving new technologies: social theory and ubiquitous computing. (Anne Galloway, Carleton University, Ontario)

It doesn’t seem like a lot especially when I see some of the work being done in the UK and in the US.

On other fronts, I stumbled across an old (2004?) Neal Stephenson interview with Slashdot (I think the writer is Adam Shand). They make no mention of Diamond Age, which is more or less Stephenson’s nano novel. Still, he provides an interesting take on being a science fiction writer and making money as a writer. In fact, if you’re interested in Neal Stephenson interviews, etc., you can go here for a listing.