Monday, December 25, 2006

Environmental Regulations, Public Diplomacy, and Senator Schwarzenegger

As City of Berkeley officials congratulate each other on being the first local government to put in place nano regulations, their governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is positioning himself as the frontrunner on environmental regulations, more broadly. Not surprisingly, Governor Schwarzenegger has much more of a sense for the national-level realpolitik of environmental issues than his City Council colleagues down in Berkeley. For him, energy conservation and environmentalism are critical tools for solving to the image problem that the U.S. continues to have in most parts of the world. Pro-environmental leadership by the U.S., he argues, will be a key component of successful public diplomacy:

"The war has dragged us down. There's no reason to get political, that's just the way it is," he said. "But you can balance it by being a great leader in the environment."

"The more America shows leadership in that area," he said, "the more we will be loved for that as much as they love us for our hamburgers and for our jeans and for our movies and for our music."

(For the complete Washington Post article, click here.)

Schwarzenegger’s focus on energy conservation and environmental policy is especially interesting, given the keynote speech by Susan Pinkus, Director of polling for the LA Times, at the convention of the Midwest Association for Public Opinion Research this past November in Chicago. Pinkus speculated that Schwarzenegger may be positioning himself to run against Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer when her seat is up for re-election in 2010. For now, that means that California’s Republican governor and its two Democratic Senators push a joint environmental agenda in D.C.:

"California's two senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, have told officials in Sacramento that they intend to model federal legislation on California's greenhouse gas legislation. Schwarzenegger said he is ready to go to Washington to testify on the issue."

(more here.)

Friday, December 22, 2006

House Science Committee goes bipartisan: "Government needs strategy for nano risks"

House Science Committee press release:

WASHINGTON, December 21, 2006 – Outgoing Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and incoming Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) today reiterated their call for the Administration to establish a research agenda with clear priorities to ensure a greater understanding of the potential environmental, health and safety risks associated with nanotechnology.

Boehlert and Gordon made their comments in a joint statement today that accompanied the release of witness responses to questions issued by the Committee following the September 21 hearing, Research on Environmental and Safety Impacts of Nanotechnology: What are the Federal Agencies Doing? The witnesses’ responses, along with other materials from the hearing, are available on the Science Committee’s website.

Boehlert and Gordon issued the following statement:

“The witness answers have provided useful insights for the next Congress to consider. In particular, we think the next Congress must continue to review whether an outside entity, like the National Academy of Sciences, ought to be charged with putting together a research agenda with clear priorities on environmental, health and safety issues related to nanotechnology, and whether the Health Effects Institute ought to carry out some of the more sensitive public health research. Regardless of the role of outside organizations, we continue to believe that the federal government needs to move much more quickly to put together a truly coordinated strategic plan for research in this area along the lines of the recommendations that were recently published in the journal Nature.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

It's official: City of Berkeley regulates nano

The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously yesterday to amend the Berkeley Municipal Code and add a disclosure requirement on nanoparticles:
15.12.040 Filing of disclosure information. I. All facilities that manufacture or use manufactured nanoparticles shall submit a separate written disclosure of the current toxicology of the materials reported, to the extent known, and how the facility will safely handle, monitor, contain, dispose, track inventory, prevent releases and mitigate such materials.
The new code forces researchers and manufacturers to report what nanotechnology materials they are working with and how they are handling them (see for more information).

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Journalists as Newsmakers: Rick Weiss on Nano

Press Release

Nanotechnology: The Story Behind the Headlines
Thursday December 7, 11:21 am ET

WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 /PRNewswire/ -- Little science is big news, or is it? Does the media tend to hype nanotechnology, or neglect it? Do newspaper headlines focus more on nanotechnology's risks than its benefits? How do journalists write stories on a technology about which most Americans know next to nothing and that is invisible to the human eye?

With governments, corporations and venture capitalists spending $9.6 billion annually on nanotechnology research and development, and with an estimated $2.6 trillion in global manufactured goods incorporating nanotechnology -- or about 15% of total output -- expected by 2014, there is a lot at stake in how these questions are answered.

The Woodrow Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies will explore these questions at a program featuring The Washington Post's science and medical reporter Rick Weiss, and Leigh University professor Sharon M. Friedman. Mr. Weiss will talk about the challenges of writing about nanotechnology, especially in the face of scant popular understanding of the technology or its potential to change virtually every aspect of people's lives. Professor Friedman will report her findings from six years of tracking U.S. and U.K. newspaper and wire service coverage of nanotechnology risks, work she did in collaboration with Brenda P. Egolf of Lehigh University.

The event and live webcast will take place on Wednesday, December 13th at 10:00 a.m. in the 5th Floor Conference Room of the Woodrow Wilson Center (

*** Webcast LIVE at ***


Nanotechnology: The Story Behind the Headlines


Rick Weiss, Medical and Science Reporter, The Washington Post
Sharon M. Friedman, Professor and Director of the Science &
Environmental Writing Program, and Associate Dean, Lehigh
David Rejeski, Director, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies


Wednesday, December 13th, 2006, 10:00 - 11:00 a.m.


Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 5th Floor
Conference Room. 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

U.S. public opinion about nano still fairly neutral

CBC just reported on the latest public opinion poll on nanotechnology in the U.S. The phone survey was conducted by Zogby International for Steven C. Currall at the University College London, and Neal Lane at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy (Lane, of course, was also Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Clinton administration) and focused on comparisons between nanotech and other emerging technologies, such as GMOs and nuclear power.

"[The study] examined how the public's perceptions of nanotechnology are being shaped by consumer trends and whether awareness will lead to increased support for research.

Currall and Lane conducted 503 interviews in the United States by randomly dialing telephone numbers from a list, and asking respondents about their perceptions of nanotechnology in the context of other technologies, such as nuclear power and genetic modification of organisms (GMO).

"Our results showed that nanotechnology was seen as relatively neutral; it was perceived as less risky and more beneficial than a number of other technologies, such as GMO, pesticides, chemical disinfectants and human genetic engineering," the study says.

However, the study also found that it was seen as "more risky and less beneficial " than solar power, vaccinations, hydroelectric power and computer display screens."

(Click here for the full CBC story.)

The study, which appears in the December issue of Nature Nanotechnology, is the latest iteration in a series of public opinion polls that have all found relatively low levels of awareness among the general public and no widespread concerns directly linked to nanotechnology. Unfortunately, the Currall/Lane study was in the field too early to tap into any impact that the recent EPA regulations of consumer products containing certain nano-sized silver particles may have had (see nanopublic posting from November, 23, 2006).

What is interesting, however, is Currall et al.'s conclusion that benefit perceptions provide important contingencies for opinion formation among the general public. This finding is not necessarily new, but it highlights once again the argument that the first highly visible applications on the consumer market will have a significant impact on people's willingness to live with certain risks and uncertainties.

(Click here for a copy of Steven Currall's presentation at today's web cast for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Red nano milk?

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany's left-leaning national dailies, speculated about the risks and benefits of emerging applications of nanotechnology last month. Among the potential applications that were discussed: milk containing nanoparticles that change their color and turn the milk red when it goes bad.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the commercial success of this idea will be limited, even for the U.S. market. After FlavrSavr and Frankenfood, one would assume that scientists and corporations have understood where consumers draw the line in the sand. But regardless of where exactly that line is, it's fairly safe to assume that red milk crosses it.

Nanoparticles, of course, are already used in numerous food-related applications, such as ketchup or vitamin supplements, and public protests have been limited. But consumers will not react favorably to products that remind them of the nanotechnology-based additives that they contain every time they take a sip from a carton of expired milk.

And when it comes to attitude formation, it does not matter if consumer concerns are justified or if they are based on an accurate understanding of the science behind these new technologies. What matters are public perceptions. And those perceptions, for better or worse, are often based on religious views, moral concerns, and other cognitive shortcuts that allow citizens to form opinions even in the absence of sufficient information. It's somewhat surprising, therefore, that some scientists still do not seem to be aware of the large body of empirical research on public perceptions about scientific issues, such as GMOs, stem cell research, and nanotechnology. And it's equally fascinating to see the naive surprise in some scientific circles and the calls for more public information campaigns every time there's a public backlash against a new technology or a policy proposal to regulate funding and research. One thing is for certain: If nano milk ever becomes a reality, it will produce both.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Grey goo concerns become reality ... virtually

Second Life TM
-- online playground for those who don't have a first one -- was brought to its knees late last month when Linden Lab's servers were attacked by what experts described as a self-replicating worm attack named 'Grey Goo'. The interesting and somewhat humorous aspect of this story is that this incident may have done more to create awareness of this nanotech-related concern than any other medium.
"The massive attack marked the third time since September that the world created by San Francisco-based Linden Lab got overrun by quickly reproducing digital objects. The term "grey goo" comes from a hypothetical threat of nanotechnology: A self-replicating nanobot could consume the Earth's resources, transforming the world into a giant blob of grey goo. Some biotechnologists have warned about tailored viruses that could have a similar, but limited, effect. The virtual world of World of Warcraft as well has had at least one instance of a digital disease that struck down players' avatars." (for the full SecurityFocus story, click here.)

Douglas Soo, studio director for Linden Lab, pushed the nano angle even further in an email interview reported in the SecurityFocus piece:

"In the same way that it is theorized that out-of-control nanotech could consume all of the physical resources of the world and turn it into grey nanotech goo, Second Life grey goo can theoretically consume all of the available server resources of the Second Life world and fill it with grey goo objects".


To combat grey goo attacks, the company has implemented a ceiling on how fast objects can replicate and also limited the replication from crossing region boundaries in Second Life. Called a grey-goo fence, the defensive measure failed to stop the most recent attack because the rings propagated at a much slower rate, under the fence's throttling threshold.

Prince Charles of Wales was one of the first
politicians to publicly warn about the
of grey goo.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Nano and the need for good social science

Public opinion is in the eye of the beholder. Or at least that’s what it seems like after recent reports of a supposed study of public opinion on nanotechnology in U.S. and European media outlets. In particular, a number of blogs and media organizations ran stories with headlines like this during the past week:

Nanotechnology risks need more study, German survey finds.”

I am not quite sure who is to blame, but I am still in awe over the fact that a single small-group meeting gets misconstrued into a “study of public opinion” and triggers international coverage. The one group that is not to blame are the organizers, who never claimed to provide an accurate assessment of public opinion. In fact, the project, launched by the Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung (BfR) [German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment], was designed as a consensus conference and explicitly labeled as such:

The staging of a consumer conference puts BfR’s statutory remit on risk communication into practice by directly involving groups of consumers in the discussions about the risks and benefits prior to the introduction of a broadly based consumer application of this technology. This is the first time that a public agency in Germany has used this tool.”

None of the blogs or media outlets who covered the story, of course, bothered to read the original description of the meeting on BfR’s web site. Otherwise they would have noticed that what most media reports call a “survey” was a single meeting of 16 consumers. More importantly, these were not 16 randomly selected consumers, which would hardly qualify as a survey either. Rather, BfR contacted a random 6,000 citizens of the larger Berlin/Brandenburg area in northeast Germany. Of those 6,000 first contacts, 41 responded to the invitation, indicating a willingness to participate, and 16 participants were selected from those 41 replies.

Based on my calculations, this translates into a cooperation rate of 0.6%, which would be a concern even if we could assume that self-selection happens randomly. But it doesn’t of course. And what BfR ended up with is a small, self-selected group of citizens from a specific region in Germany who are involved and interested enough in nanotechnology to attend a three-day meeting.

And all research in communication and political science shows that even if researchers invest significant amounts of money and go through multiple rounds of recruitment, it is difficult to get a representative group of participants in these meetings. I recommend Dan Merkle’s piece on Deliberative Polling in Public Opinion Quarterly a while back. He goes step by step through the problems and biases that have plagued similar efforts.

Merkle, D. M. (1996). The National Issues Convention deliberative poll. Public Opinion Quarterly, 60, 588-619.

But again, none of this would be an issue if media outlets had just stuck with what the BfR was trying to do in the first place:

“The consumer conference draws on the model of the consensus conference. This tool was developed and is used in Denmark. The subject matter and goal of this consumer participation procedure is to assess new technologies and scientific developments from the angle of informed lay persons (citizens or consumers).

The effectiveness of consumer conferences depends on whether and, if so, how they are integrated into political or social processes. Hence, their impact can vary greatly.”

What this whole story highlights, of course, is the need for sound social science in the area of emerging technologies. Public discourse about new technologies tends to focus more and more on the policy implications or the moral aspects of the issue rather than the scientific facts. An that is good, given the immense societal implications that many of these new technologies carry with them. The recent debates about stem cell research and GMOs are good examples. As a result, federal funding guidelines and other regulations of research are all directly tied to the public opinion dynamics surrounding these emerging technologies.

This also means, of course, that we are in desperate need of social science research that systematically tracks opinions, helps us understand the interplay of opinion formation and media coverage, and explores the dynamics between policy groups, media, and citizens. Consensus conferences and technology forums are important components of this research. But they are not surveys or tools of assessing public opinion. Journalists who make inferences from sentiments expressed at consensus conferences to public opinion among the larger public are therefore simply misleading their audiences.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Manufacturers removing nano labels from product descriptions

As a fall-out from EPA's recent announcement that it would regulate consumer products using certain silver nano particles, the word "nano" is disappearing from product descriptions on, and elsewhere. Manufacturers, it seems, want to make sure that potential public concerns or even a backlash against nano based on the new regulations do not affect their brand equity.

City of Berkeley first to implement nano regulations ... almost

Based on a report by the San Francisco Chronicle, City of Berkeley officials are proposing what may turn out to be the first local regulations for labs and businesses working with materials at the nanoscale.

"The ordinance goes to the City Council for discussion on Dec. 5. If approved, it would add a nanoparticles health and safety disclosure to a city law that already requires an inventory and safety plan from any business or other person handling large quantities of hazardous materials.”

The City of Berkeley, unfortunately, was beaten to the punch by the Environmental Protection Agency (see nanopublic posting from November 23, 2006) who announced regulations related to specific nano particles just before the weekend. According to the SF Chronicle piece, that didn't seem to matter too much for Nabil Al-Hadithy, the City of Berkeley's hazardous materials manager, who still called the proposed city ordinance "the first actual regulation of nanoparticles per se."

"There have been a great number of attempts to regulate them, and they've all amounted to nothing because of the fear of upsetting industry, which leaves workers and the community at some unknown risk," he said. "It's the unknown that's a concern to us."

Thursday, November 23, 2006

First Federal Nano Regulations: Bacteria-Killing Silver Particles

In what the Washington Post's Rick Weiss calls the "first federal restriction to focus largely on nanotechnology," the EPA announced yesterday that it will regulate products that contain bacteria-killing silver particles at the nano scale.
However, "[m]ost nanomaterials -- which by definition are on the scale of a billionth of a meter -- will remain outside the purview of the new EPA decision."
What's especially interesting is that the new regulation is the first strict application of the precautionary principle by a Federal agency in the area of nanotechnology, and puts the burden of proof on the manufacturers.
"Under the new determination, first reported on Tuesday by the Daily Environment Report, a Washington publication, and confirmed yesterday by the EPA, any company wishing to sell a product that it claims will kill germs by the release of nanotech silver or related technology will first have to provide scientific evidence that the product does not pose an environmental risk."

(Click here for the full Washington Post story.)
The new regulations come in the wake of a controversy in Germany surrounding Samsung's washing machines which rely on a similar technology, called SilverCareTM. Foresight's Christine Peterson blogged on this two days ago on NanoDot.

For an overview of products containing silver particles, see the nano|public posting from June 6, 2006.

“The asbestos of tomorrow” is beginning to stick

The asbestos of tomorrow frame that I’ve blogged about back in February (see nano|public post from February, 16, 2006) is now even emerging in the academic discourse about nanotech in the U.S. Brown University’s alumni magazine recently ran an article about professors Robert Hurt and Agnes Kane who research the safety of carbon nano materials.

The article provides an excellent overview of the important work that Hurt and Kane are doing at Brown. But it also illustrates a key aspect of how scientific issues get communicated. And that is: A good frame goes a long way, and once the genie is out of the bottle it is impossible to put it back. In other words, scientists should think very carefully about the type of language they use when talking about emerging technologies, because the terms they use are often as important as the scientific findings that they want the public to know about.

Political candidates have figured this out a long time ago and are now spending significant amounts of time and resources on researching the labels they use when describing or framing issues. Framing as a concept goes back to work in sociology, psychology and communication, and refers to the idea that the way we describe an issue can influence the cognitive schema that people use to make sense of the issue. In other words, it is not what you say, but how you say it that makes all the difference.

The tricky part is that framing is also an important tool for journalists who have to convey complex issues, such as nanotech, to their audience who have little or no scientific training. Frames like “the asbestos of tomorrow” therefore allow journalists to cover the issue in a way that helps audiences make sense of the potential concerns by drawing parallels to previous scientific controversies.

In other words, framing is an important journalistic tool. The problem is that the “asbestos” frame in particular evokes interpretive schema that have little to do with nano. And rather than encouraging citizens to carefully consider what we know and don’t know about nanotech and its risks, the asbestos frame allows audiences to instead rely on a heuristic understanding of nanotechnology that is in part based on what many considered a lackluster response by the Federal government to the health problems surrounding asbestos.

And the Brown article plays directly into this interpretation. Emily Gold Boutilier, author of the article and now editor at Amherst Magazine, uses the asbestos comparison to put Hurt and Kane’s work into a historical perspective.

As a result, the article is not sensationalist or misleading. In fact, it provides an excellent overview of the work done at Brown. The problem is that Boutilier's story angle and choice of frame structures the narrative around potential parallels to asbestos, even though that is not what the content is all about. As a result, the complex issues surrounding the largely unknown toxic qualities of nano-sized carbon structures are reduced to a single question, repeated in pull-quotes and teasers throughout the article: “Could today’s wonder fiber be the next asbestos?”

And the story angle provides a convenient interpretive tool for audiences who know little about nanotech (see the recent poll by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies). Paralleling nano and asbestos also rules out anything but the strictest interpretation of the precautionary principle. Who in the world would not chose oversight and regulations over scientific progress, if we are really about to create a new cancer epidemic 20 years down the road?

The idea has nothing to do with being in favor or against nanotech, of course. But it highlights an important lesson for all of us involved in outreach and education about nano. It’s not just what you say, it is how you say it. The Frankenfood label was successful not based on the information it provided, but based on the interpretive schema it triggered among audiences.

And European companies have learned their lesson. They continue to prepare for a potential public controversy on nanotech by focusing on a few key terms and ideas around which they brand their innovations and parents. And they’re good at it. The goal: To establish their frames early in public discourse and to stay on message with nano is nature frames, comparisons with the lotus flower, and with earthy colors for every product that hits the market.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Forthcoming by Chris Mooney: Storm World

Chris Mooney author of the Republican War on Science, just announced his new, forthcoming book Storm World on his blog.

"Well, I guess there's no point hiding it any more. My new book, due out in June 2007, will be entitled Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. It now has a cover image and everything.

You should not judge from this fact that the book's completely finished, however; nor am I ready to divulge what it says or argues (beyond what might be gleaned from the cover image). But I will say a few words about what the book is not:

1. This is not a "sequel" to The Republican War on Science.
2. This is not a late-breaking addition to the literature of "Katrina books" of last year.
3. This is not a book about New Orleans, even though that's where I'm from.
4. This is not quite what I thought it would be when I started out working on the project (and that's a good thing). "

New Pew Report about Use of Online Science Content: Knowledge and Attitude Gaps

The bad news is that the Internet seems to create new gaps in scientific learning. The good news is that the Internet also seems to create gaps in how people think about science.

Based on data just released as part of a new report by The Pew Internet & American Life Project, “[t]he convenience of getting scientific material on the web opens doors to better attitudes and understanding of science.

Each respondent to this survey received questions on one of three specific scientific topics: stem cell research, climate change, and origins of life on Earth. When asked what source they would use first if they needed to learn more about the topic, here is what they said:
  • 67% of those receiving questions about stem cell research said they would turn to the internet first for information on this topic; 11% said the library.
  • 59% of respondents receiving questions about climate change said they would turn to the internet first for information on this topic; 12% said the library.”

And here comes the depressing part:

  • “42% of those answering questions about the origins of life on Earth said they would turn to the internet first for information on this topic; 19% said the library, and 11% said the Bible or church.”

But users of online science information are also more optimistic about the potential of science to make important contributions to society and to improving human life:

  • “48% strongly agree that to be a strong society, the United States needs to be competitive in science; 33% of remaining online users strongly agree with this.
  • 43% strongly agree that scientific research is essential to improving the quality of human lives; 27% of remaining online users say this. \
  • 38% strongly agree that developments in science make society better; 27% of remaining online users strongly agree with this.
  • 22% strongly agree that people need a good understanding of scientific concepts principles to lead their daily lives; 15% of remaining online users say this.”

(Click here for a PDF version of the full report.)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Using nano without being aware ...

The American public and the citizens of Damascus around 900 A.D. have something in common: They may have used nano materials without being aware of it. just posted preliminary research by Peter Paufler of Dresden’s Technical University who examined sabres used by Muslim fighters during the crusades. His conclusion: The metal used to make those sabers has a microstructure of nano-metre-sized tubes similar to nano materials used today:

“Sabres from Damascus, now in Syria, date back as far as 900 AD. Strong and sharp, they are made from a type of steel called wootz. Their blades bear a banded pattern thought to have been created as the sword was annealed and forged. But the secret of the swords' manufacture was lost in the eighteenth century.

But his suggestion isn't necessarily rock solid. Steel expert John Verhoeven, of Iowa State University in Ames, suggests Paufler is seeing something else. Cementite can itself exist as rods, he notes, so there might not be any carbon nanotubes in the rod-like structure.”

(Click here for the summary article from the news section of

Saturday, November 11, 2006

In case it's toxic ...

ETC, a liberal think tank is inviting entries for their "Design a nano-hazard symbol" competition. It's good to know that there will be a hazard symbol, just in case we actually agree at some point on standards for testing and regulating nano products.

A panel of judges determined by ETC will decide on a winner next year.
"Entries will also be judged by participants at the World Social Forum, Nairobi, Kenya, 20-25 January 2007. The winning entry will be submitted to international standard-setting bodies responsible for hazard characterisation, to international governmental organisations and to national governments as a proposed symbol for nanotechnology hazards."
Download the official announcement here.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Framing wars: Religion vs. science

Leading up to key races in Missouri and other states, mass media have fully endorsed the framing wars between science and religion. Fueling the fire is Richard Dawkins’ tour for his latest book The God Delusion, which was enough to have Wired Magazine declare the age of “The New Atheism" in their November issue. As their title says: “No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science: Inside the crusade against religion.”

Science, of course, has little to do with religion or a crusade against it. But science is fighting for its life. Proponents of the Intelligent Design movement have very aptly and very successfully reframed religion as a scientific theory. They have recast margins of error as "uncertainty," and concept-based reasoning as “just a theory.”

And these frames fall on fertile ground. In a 2004 Newsweek poll, 93 percent of Americans said they believed that Jesus Christ actually lived and 82 percent believed Jesus Christ was God or the Son of God. Fifty-two percent of all those polled believed that Jesus will return to earth someday. Fifteen percent believed that Jesus will return in their lifetime.

This makes the recent battles over public opinion and framing of stem cell even more interesting. A number of think tanks and interest groups are actively battling back. MajorityAction, a DNC think tank, just released an issue ad, attacking a number of Republican candidates who oppose expanded federal funding for stem cell research. Their frame: Anti-stem cell means anti-life and anti-science. Here’s part of the transcript of an ad targeting NY Congressman Jim Walsh that plays directly into the religion versus science frame:

“He voted against federal funding for stem cell research. Is he a doctor? Is he a scientist? Why did Congressman Walsh bet my life that he knows best?”

Michael J. Fox also just came out with a campaign ad supporting Claire McCaskill (D) who is running for one of Missouri’s U.S. Senate seats. Among the sound bites from the ad:

“Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope.”

And the strategy of recasting opponents of expanded stem cell funding as anti-science and anti-life may very well work on November 7. But more importantly, these attempts to establish one frame over another are good indicators of what we can expect for future debates about emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology.

And they highlight a key aspect of successful communication. Neither proponents nor opponents of stem cell research build their arguments on scientific information. What they rely on are heuristics or cognitive shortcuts that will allow voters to make decisions without understanding the obvious complexities surrounding the issues. And it doesn't matter if these shortcuts are based on religious beliefs, celebrity, or personal hopes. Packaging matters ... regardless of which side of the issue you’re on.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Could a GM-style nano war be breaking out?

The Times speculates today that we may soon see a public debate over nano and food that is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding GM food. And even though some researchers have argued that the two issues are inherently different (see nanopublic posting from February 13, 2006), Vivienne Parry's article provides some very interesting explanations for why European companies have been so keen to establish the "nano is nature" frame in public discourse early on (see nanopublic posting from August 20, 2006), especially as more and more food-related nano applications are hitting the shelves.

"Could nanomaterials migrate from packaging into food? If so, what might their impact be? No one knows yet [...] . So that is one area where future controversy may lie.

But more likely by far to provoke public concern is the interest that food manufacturers are showing in adding nanomaterials directly to food. Because nanotechnology is such a new science, the consequences of them entering the human body is an under-researched area."

(For the full article, click here.)

Saturday, October 14, 2006

FDA hearing and public opinion: About more than just trust ...

The precautionary principle and science are like the welfare state and a market economy. No one seriously argues that we don’t need some combination of both. But the question is: How much weight do we assign to each, and what are the goals we have in mind when we do?

And this week’s FDA hearing on nanotech was a perfect example:
“[T]he U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Nanotechnology Task Force got more than just a mixed message Tuesday when it convened experts and stakeholders to get advice as to whether the agency should regulate nanotechnology products.

Some said current regulations are sufficient, while others said safety testing is long overdue, especially for products like cosmetics. But they also disagreed as to how to define a nanoparticle, and even if there should be such a definition in the first place.”
(for the full article from Smalltimes, click here)

All arguments about labeling at the FDA hearing came down to three competing interests: the scientific community, the business community, and the public. Interestingly, the argument was made that regulations are necessary in order to not lose the public’s trust. But regulations, of course, are just on potential predictor of trust.

Trust in regulatory bodies tends to spill over from issue to issue, and people who felt that the government did not deal adequately with the risks associated with previous issues, such ag biotech or asbestos, will also be less trusting when it comes to regulating nano. More importantly, however, trust is shaped my mass media and their coverage of emerging technologies. And the FDA and other federal agencies should be very concerned about how to communicate about nanotech not just with the public, but with journalists who will cover the story.

Journalists favor conflict over science and debate over discourse. For the Intelligent Design issue (i.e., teaching various creationist beliefs in public school science classes), this has produced the warped perception among large parts of the public that scientific findings are inherently tentative and uncertain. And media are in part to blame. Based on a faulty understanding of balance, some media organizations present “both sides” of the Intelligent Design debate, as if the pro-ID position were on par with other scientifically-based viewpoints.

In addition, for many emerging technologies, the question if we have regulations in place to minimize health effects is irrelevant for public support. Stem cell research is a great example of an issue where various sub-publics would oppose any scientific progress on ideological and religious grounds, regardless of how well regulated the approval processes by federal agencies would be. In short, public opinion on nanotech is about a lot more than trust.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Civic scientists ... the ability to tell a story

Assistant Editor Bethany Halford's feature on 1996 Chemistry Nobel Prize winner and Rice chemistry professor Richard E. Smalley in the current issue of Chemical & Engineering News is worth reading. Halford's take: He was one of the greatest communicators that the field of nanotech has had.

The article outlines at least are two interesting lessons for effective communication about emerging technologies, especially at the policy level. First, in order to be effective at the policy level, any description of the new technology has to be episodic, i.e., it has to link to a concrete case.
“When Smalley testified before the House of Representatives about establishing NNI in 1999, he had been fighting leukemia for over a year. "I sit before you today with very little hair on my head. It fell out a few weeks ago as a result of the chemotherapy I've been undergoing to treat a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma," Smalley told the representatives. "While I am very optimistic, this chemotherapy is a very blunt tool. It consists of small molecules which are toxic-they kill cells in my body. Although they are meant to kill only the cancer cells, they kill hair cells too, and cause all sorts of other havoc.

"Now, I'm not complaining. Twenty years ago, without even this crude chemotherapy, I would already be dead. But 20 years from now, I am confident we will no longer have to use this blunt tool. By then, nanotechnology will have given us specially engineered drugs, which are nanoscale cancer-seeking missiles, a molecular technology that specifically targets just the mutant cancer cells in the human body and leaves everything else blissfully alone. ... I may not live to see it. But, with your help, I am confident it will happen. Cancer-at least the type that I have-will be a thing of the past."”

The second interesting skill Halford highlights is Smalley’s ability to act as a “civic scientist, as Neal Lane, Clinton’s Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, puts it.
“The academics who are most effective in Washington—Lane calls them civic scientists—can "tell an interesting story in a succinct manner, where not only is it clear what the fundamental science and engineering aspects are, but also what the impact on society will be. And you have to do it in such a way that what you say sounds credible and not hyped," Lane says.”

(Click here for the full article.)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Technology Review: ‘"Nanotoxicity" might seem more compelling if there was an actual nano-victim out there.’

Technology Review editor David Talbot just blogged on the recent discussions about regulatory deficits for nanotechnology, suggesting that none of these arguments will gain much traction unless we see some type of catalytic event:

“Not since New Year's Eve 2000, have so many safety concerns been voiced for what--so far, anyway--seems so little reason. We're talking about nanotechnology: the catch-all term for engineering super-small features and particles to create things like ultra-sensitive medical diagnostic tools, blazingly fast electronics, and exceptionally strong materials.

There are theoretical risks. When you break something into smaller pieces, you wind up with more surface area for the same mass--making the thing potentially more reactive and more toxic. Also, super-small particles can move to places in the body where other particles can't, like the alveoli in the lungs and even past the blood-brain barrier.”

(Click here for the full article.)
His overview is especially refreshing since he is not blindly jumping on the we-need-more-regulations bandwagon that has dominated the discussions about societal impacts of nanotechnology recently:
“Yes, as with most human endeavors, the field carries potential risks to human health and the environment. But, by all appearances, the leaders in this field are on top of what is, so far, a nonproblem.

Nanotech is where breakthroughs are likely. Forget about just the cancer-detection and other advanced medical tools it's midwifing and the next-gen consumer electronics such as super-bright displays. On a planet that's on the cusp of catastrophic climate change, nano-engineered materials have the potential to make a real difference. Imagine solar power cells that are far cheaper and more efficient; batteries that allow for more efficient electric cars; components that make cleaner coal-fired power plants. These and other applications are hardly trivial--they'll save energy, reduce pollution, and maybe go a little way to making sure Times Square won't be under water for the next millennium celebration.”
The only aspect where his blog post is somewhat misleading is his interpretation of the results of a recent Wilson Center survey. The survey asked about people’s self-reported awareness of nanotech. This has little to do with knowledge or understanding, of course, but Talbot doesn’t make that distinction:
“Rich people know more about nanotech than poor people. And as a kicker: older people and women know the least about nanotech, even though they're the ones more likely to use the cosmetics and sunscreens that may contain nanoparticles.”
In the last NSF-funded national survey we did here at Wisconsin, there was no gender or income gap for nano knowledge. That is, if nano knowledge was measured as an additive index of six factual knowledge questions about scientific and economic aspects of nanotech rather than simple awareness of the issue. Which demographics were in fact more informed about nano? Younger and more educated respondents.

For more details:

Scheufele, D. A., & Lewenstein, B. V. (2005). The public and nanotechnology: How citizens make sense of emerging technologies. Journal of Nanoparticle Research, 7(6), 659-667.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Nanit®active: More Nature-Nano Frames from Europe

SusTech and Henkel just introduced Nanit®active, a nano-based treatment for sensitive teeth. Nanit®active is designed to create a protective layer that helps rebuild parts of the tooth's surface.

Click here for a short movie on
how Nanit®active works:

What’s most interesting, however, is that Henkel and SusTech follow the lead of many other European firms in framing their new product along the “nano is nature” frame. Corporations in Europe, it seems, leave nothing to chance when it comes to positioning nanotech as a natural extension of traditional research. And they are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the ag biotech debate and not to lose the framing battle this time with anti-nano non-profits and interest groups.

Analogies between lotus flowers and nano umbrellas (see nano|public blog from August 18, 2006), in this case, are replaced with comparisons between Nanit®active and the natural growth of grass and seeds:

"A natural process: The growth of plants from seeds and rain is comparable to the growth of a protection layer from Nanit®active and saliva."

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Mooney in Madison: The Republican War on Science

Chris Mooney, Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and a senior correspondent for the American Prospect, stopped by the University of Wisconsin Tuesday to promote the updated paperback of The Republican War on Science. After his talk we had a hard time finding a bar downtown that was not completely deserted, but ultimately we were successful.

Mooney is one of the very few writers in D.C. at the moment who understand the importance of successful strategic communication about emerging technologies, and who is able to articulate this message very succinctly. We are not just seeing a “war” on science by some policy makers, but we are also seeing attempts on both sides of the aisle to reframe scientific issues around moral values and belief systems of the respective political bases.

Frank Luntz has has certainly perfected this art of pretesting terminology and visuals and of streamlining the Republican message around key frames that play to very specific underlying schema among voters (see excerpt from one of his memos on the right). But the Democrats are trying hard to catch up and rally around their current campaign guru of choice, George Lakoff. In spite of the book’s partisan title, much of what Mooney talks about in this new edition therefore applies to the intersection of science and politics more broadly.

And of course “The Republican War on Science” talks about much more than just communication. Or as Boyce Rensberger put it in his book review for the Scientific American:

“Chris Mooney [is] one of the few journalists in the country who specialize in the now dangerous intersection of science and politics. His book is a well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists. Mooney's chronicle of what he calls "science abuse" begins in the 1970s with Richard Nixon and picks up steam with Ronald Reagan. But both pale in comparison to the current Bush administration, which in four years has:

- Rejected the scientific consensus on global warming and suppressed an EPA report supporting that consensus.

- Stacked numerous advisory committees with industry representatives and members of the religious Right.

- Begun deploying a missile defense system without evidence that it can work.

- Banned funding for embryonic stem cell research except on a claimed 60 cell lines already in existence, most of which turned out not to exist.

- Forced the National Cancer Institute to say that abortion may cause breast cancer, a claim refuted by good studies.

- Ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to remove information about condom use and efficacy from its Web site.”

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Americans don't care about politics ... or anything else just blogged on a story from Rising Hegemon about Newsweek's recent decision to go with Ann Leibovitz's "Life in Pictures" for the cover rather than the war in Afghanistan:
"In her new book, Annie Leibovitz, our most famous photographer, places celebs side by side with surprisingly personal images of love and loss. An exclusive."
This probably says as much about Newsweek as it does about the marketability of hard news in this country. What's really depressing, of course, is that the Newsweek editors apparently felt that Latin America, Asia, and Europe were ready for the realities of world politics and could deal with the Afghanistan cover for their local editions of Newsweek.

The U.S. public, on the other hand, apparently needs a bit more pampering, and stories about celebrities, love and loss fit their interests better than news about wars, politics and other things that matter.

Of course, this also has immense implications for some of the scientific policy debates we will be facing in the near future. Why worry about a factual understanding of stem cell research, for instance, if we’re being fed talking points by intellectual and moral leaders like Michael J. Fox, Brad Pitt, Mel Gibson, and Jerry Falwell? After all, these are the people we put on the covers of our major news magazines.

This whole phenomenon, of course, is neither new nor surprising, and there is no point in continually lamenting the lack of public involvement in politics or science. But it important for those of us concerned with science literacy and outreach to realize that Brad Pitt has done more for California’s Proposition 71, a bond measure that will provide $3 billion over 10 years to stem cell research, than most scientific outreach programs and informational campaigns. The Newsweek cover story has once again highlighted the rules of the game. Whoever wants to play needs to follow these rules.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Predictable findings, but great soundbites

The Washington Post's Rick Weiss and the New York Times's Barnaby J. Feder both just wrote pieces about the new NRC report for Congress on the state of the National Nanotech Initiative (NNI).

As Rick Weiss writes, "[t]he report concludes that the U.S. research effort is vibrant and almost certainly the strongest in the world, though a few other countries are close behind. Among the more important unmet needs, it says, is stronger collaboration with the departments of Education and Labor to boost the supply of scientists and technicians with the skills the sector needs.

The report's concerns about the lack of a federal focus on nanotech health and safety were foreshadowed at a House Science Committee hearing Thursday at which Republicans and Democrats alike took the Bush administration to task over the lack of a plan to learn more about nanotech's risks."

While the report's conclusions shouldn't surprise anyone, they triggered a few good soundbites, among others from ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee Bart Gordon (Tenn.) who called the report "a very juvenile piece of work."

But the best and probably most accurate commentary didn't come from pundits or politicans -- but straigth from NSF. “I have to tell you that this area is so complex that I don’t know of any person or a small group of people who would be smart enough to be able to identify all the risks, set the priorities, and lay out a so-called game plan,” said Arden L. Bement Jr., director of the National Science Foundation. “The situation changes day by day, and so there has to be more of a soccer approach to this rather than an American football approach.”

(Click here for the Washington Post article and here for the NYT article.)

Monday, September 18, 2006

New national poll on nanotech

"WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 /PRNewswire/ -- Research findings released today from the first major national poll on nanotechnology in more than two years indicate that while more Americans are now aware of the emerging science, the majority of the public still has heard little to nothing about it. The poll also finds that the public looks to the federal government and independent parties to oversee nanotechnology research and development. These results, according to experts, necessitate increased education and stronger oversight as a means to increase public confidence in nanotechnology."

(Click here for the full story from PRNewswire.
The full report can be downloaded from

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Exploring uncharted territory: Nano in food and agriculture

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies – a partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts – just released their latest report on “Nanotechnology in agriculture and food production.” It provides a first, albeit somewhat speculative outlook on the future of nano applications in agriculture and food production.

“The goal of this report is to look upstream in order to develop an early understanding about what is on the nano agrifood horizon,” said Dr. Kuzma. “In its current form, the report and data only scratches the surface of potential applications. Nonetheless, it is sufficiently informative to serve as a starting point for a more in-depth dialogue among consumers, business, and government about the near-and long-term uses of and safeguards for nanotechnology in food and agriculture. Particularly, it provides an early guidepost to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and Food & Drug Administration.”

The report also provides a good first overview of the different available data sources on funding and research. I’ve posted two figures below dealing with USDA research areas and funding by major agencies:

USDA Research Areas for Agrifood Nanotechnology Projects

EPA, USDA, and NSF Funding for Agrifood Nanotechnology, 2000-2005

(Click here for a copy of the full report, co-authored by Jennifer Kuzma and Peter VerHage.)

New blog on the intersection of science, technology, and policy

Student Pugwash USA just launched their new blog MindFull, which deals with the “ethical intersection of science, technology, and policy.”

“The mission of Student Pugwash USA is to promote social responsibility in science and technology.

We prepare science, technology and policy students to make social responsibility a guiding focus of their academic and professional endeavors by:

  • Examining the societal impacts of science and technology;
  • Creating open and objective forums for debate;
  • Fostering the exchange of ideas among diverse communities;
  • Exploring solutions to current dilemmas in science and technology; and
  • Cultivating the analytical skills needed to address future challenges."

SPUSA is the U.S. student affiliate of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize with physicist Joseph Rotblat.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Mass media, nano, and education … some incompatibilities

NPR senior science correspondent Ira Flatow spoke in Denver, CO this past Wednesday on the problems of large-scale one-size-fits-all science education efforts. He seemed rather pessimistic about mass media being able to engage and inform the larger public. And his intuitive understanding as a practitioner is very consistent, of course, with most academic research in this area:

“When nanotechnology has to compete with, say, JonBenet, we know who’s going to win this week,” Flatow told a large lunchtime audience at the BioWest 2006 biotechnology conference in Denver on Wednesday.

Flatow, NPR’s science correspondent since 1971, said that as much as America’s short attention span is to blame, the media, particularly television, are even more at fault.”

Unfortunately, the story offers few answers to the problem of how to actually go about engaging the public. Flatow believes that his latest project, will be a first step in the right direction. Here is a semi-mission statement from the web site:

Unfortunately, this seems to be just another outreach effort that is based on the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy, which been the foundation of so many (failed) attempts to inform the public about emerging technologies and engage them in science policy decisions that will directly impact their everyday lives.