Monday, February 27, 2006

Let's play nano

The Dana Centre in London is trying out a fairly new approach to public participation in science tomorrow. The center is inviting members of public to listen to experts and to work through the social, ethical, and scientific implications of nanotechnology. How? By playing cards. Well, by playing DECIDE, to be precise. DECIDE is a card game designed to involve the public in scientific discourse and decision making.

The game involves up to 8 participants per group. It is centered around the idea of group deliberation and of helping individuals with little or no initial information about nanotech to make sense of the new technology and come to an informed group decision. Players download instructions and other materials, including different sets of playing cards: story cards with episodic reports about nano, info cards with factual information, and challenge cards that pose various ethical or moral dilemmas. As part of small discussion groups, citizens identify larger themes, policy positions, and recommendations that they can upload to the DECIDE web site and compare to those of other groups all over Europe.

The ultimate goal? To provide “a structure that helps people feel safe discussing a subject they may know nothing about.” And while DECIDE's potential as a tool for large-scale citizen involvement may be minimal, the idea certainly has some intuitive appeal. Using a card game that defines clear rules for all players and forces them to examine the issues from all angles, may help counter the detrimental group dynamics and informational gaps that often characterize traditional deliberative meetings with members of the general public.

(For the complete nano card set, click here.)


Christine Peterson from Foresight Institute looked at DECIDE more closely and has an excellent commentary on her blog.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

€2 billion in nano revenues for BASF

Franz Brandstetter, Head of Polymer Research and coordinator of the Growth Cluster Nanotechnology at BASF, recently spoke about the market potential of nanotech for his company with German business magazine Der Aktionär.

According to Brandstetter, BASF already reports revenues of about €2 billion a year for products containing nano particles or nanostructures and for applications that are explicitly based on nanotechnology. Brandstetter also predicts that BASF's revenues will grow to €50 billion annually in the next five years.

(Read the complete interview here.)

Friday, February 24, 2006

European PR with the "Nano-Truck"

The nano-truck is touring Europe--literally. The goal of the project--sponsored by the German Ministry for Education and Research--is to increase public information about nanotech and awareness of the new technology. Or put less subtly, based on the press release, to "demonstrate that nanotechnology is a future technology with immense long-term potential."

(For more images, click here.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Fries or escargot? Who attends Café Scientifiques?

Heralding a new step toward democratization of science, the New York Times today covered Café Scientifiques—the idea of self-organizing forums for citizens to discuss scientific issues and invite experts to find out more about new scientific developments. Says Duncan Dallas, funder of Café Scientifique in 1998, “[f]or the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to discuss the scientific ideas and developments which are changing our lives" (for the full article in the NYT, click here).

But, of course, markets are quickly realizing that the people most likely to show up at meetings like these tend to belong to higher socioeconomic groups and that an admission fee doesn’t deter them from wanting to belong to an elite group of science connoisseurs. So for $5 or $10, the NYT reports, people can join Nobel laureates and other scientists in discussions about nanotech and other scientific breakthroughs in NYC and upstate NY.

Just like the coffeehouses of the 19th century that Habermas and other democratic theorists talked about, Café Scientifiques may turn out to be events for the enlightened bourgeoisie rather than for the average citizen. "Science for the masses (you want fries with that?)?" the NYT titles. Realistically, Café Scientifiques are probably mostly designed for niche audiences.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Strategies for Nano Legislation in Germany: “Creating Public Pressure”

Reacting to a new report about the potential dangers of military applications of nanotech, German policy makers are already beginning to think about public communication strategies to build support for arms control legislation in the area of nanotechnology. Uta Zapf, Chairwoman of the Arms Control Subcommittee in the German General Assembly and a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), was pessimistic, however. “Even with this report it will be difficult to create enough public pressure, especially without any of the new weapons being on the market yet.”

The report was released in book form yesterday in Berlin. The study was funded by the German Foundation for Peace Research (Deutsche Stiftung Friedensforschung).

How to communicate about science ... from a journalist's perspective

Coming from a more journalistic perspective, Chris Mooney (author of The Republican War on Science), recently lamented the poor communication skills of most scientists in an article in Seed Magazine.

"[S]cientists in the US have little practice when it comes to crafting a message or winning a political debate, and their inexperience sometimes leads to ill-advised actions that have the tendency to backfire."

His also reiterated the importance of framing messages and playing toward predispositional interpretive lenses. His recommendations are completely in line with many of our findings (for example, Lee, Scheufele, & Lewenstein, 2005) about how people process scientific information:

"To be sure, most scientists have figured out how to communicate to their classes or to explain their work at dinner parties. But the American public doesn’t have the same level of background knowledge, or the same attention span. It learns in sound bites; in brief snippets at best."

(Read the complete article here.)

A quick summary of the AAAs panel sunday on "Engaging the Public on Controversial Science."

THE MYTH OF THE "SCIENTIFIC CITIZEN." Most surveys on nanotech show, however, vast majority of the public is largely unengaged and uninformed. This is in part due to the minimal amount of media coverage that the issue has received so far. And most of that coverage has been focused on the economic benefits and scientific merits of the new technology. But is also a function of a second phenomenon that my presentation at AAAS focused on heavily and that I outlined before in pieces in SmallTimes and the Journal of Nanoparticle Reseach--the idea of "Low Information Rationality."

LOW INFORMATION RATIONALITY. The idea of “Low Information Rationality” is based on the idea that human beings are cognitive misers and minimize the economic costs of making decisions. And that includes nanotechnology. Low information rationality also implies that this behavior--while normatively questionable--makes perfect sense for citizens who have to deal with thousands of pieces of new information every day and need to establish patterns of doing so quickly and efficiently.

PREDISPOSITIONAL LENSES. One tool that audiences use to sift through all the information they encounter about new technologies, for instance, are what I call "predispositional lenses." These can be religious beliefs, moral values, trust in scientists, prior knowledge, or any other interpretive schema that people use to make sense of information.

The fact that people use these predispositional schema as interpretive tools also means, however, that the same piece of information may be interpreted very differently by different people. And as a result, different messages about scientific discoveries may be interpreted very differently by different cross-sections of the audience, depending on their religious beliefs, prior knowledge, and other predispositional factors.

FRAMES CAN PLAY TO THESE PRE-EXISTING PREDISPOSITIONAL LENSES. Interest groups and other players in the policy arena have long played to these perceptual lenses by framing messages in certain ways and activating certain interpretive schema. The "gun safety" frame that replaced the "gun control" frame in all public communication out of the Clinton White House after 1996 is a good example of a frame that tried to shift people's perceptual lens from a constitutionally-guaranteed right and a Second Amendment issue to an issue focused on the dangers of innocent children being killed in gun-related accidents.

LESSONS. The lessons are simple. Science communication and education needs to address different audiences and abandon the idea of a “scientific citizen” completely. Again, this does not mean that information is not important. But we know from decades of research in political communication that information can be presented in ways that fundamentally changes the interpretation among audiences. And more importantly, citizens will always use their own perceptual lenses to interpret information, even if it is presented in the most neutral way possible, based on their pre-existing values, beliefs, thoughts, and other predispositional lenses.

As a result, understanding these results and using them for effective public communication about nanotechnology and other new technologies is not an option; it is a necessity. Interest groups. corporate communicators and other players in the policy arena have long used these strategies for successfully communicating with a miserly public that will often form opinions based on very limited amount of information if we like it or not.

Just to preempt one potential criticism, my recommendation is not to engage in propagandistic attempts in order to sway opinions one way or the other. Quite the contrary. My point is that if we as scientists want to have our views heard in public debate, we need to use the communication tools that are available and appropriate for different audiences. And we need to explore the processes further that explain how these tools work.


More recommendations for scientists from the AAAS panel on my colleague Matthew Nisbet's blog Framing Science:

"GOING ON THE OFFENSIVE IS GOOD: On these short term political conflicts that involve a battle between mainstream science and the increasing influence of think tank science, scientists and journalists should go on the offensive, critically evaluating ideas or policies that don't square with scientific consensus, or are just plain wrong. But in criticizing ideas, getting the "facts" out there and "educating people" will not move the public. Responses have to be actively and strategically framed to fit the type of media outlet and the intended audience."

Sunday, February 19, 2006

European Industry-Government Collaboration on Safe Nano

The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and 13 European companies involved in nanotech research have teamed up for a new research program on nano safety called NanoCare. What's interesting about this--aside from the fact that "nanocare" is also used to describe the technology behind stain-resistant khakis--is that the German government and industry are pooling resources, with each contributing EUR 5 million and EUR 2.6 million respectively.

Public outreach and information will apparently be an integral part of the project. “We place great value on communication with interested sections of society,” says Dr. Franz Saykowski, manager of the NanoCare project at Bayer--one of the industry partners. “As with any new technology, people have to be convinced of the benefits of nanotechnology.” And that also means having a public debate about risks and befits--at least for the German Ministry of Education and Research. As undersecretary Thomas Rachel puts it: "Die Potenziale der Nanotechnologie nutzen heißt auch, verantwortungsvoll zu handeln, nach den Auswirkungen zu fragen und, wenn notwendig, Vorsorge zu treffen [In order to utilize the full potential of nanotech, we also have to act responsibly, explore all its impacts and--if necessary--take the necessary precautions."

Friday, February 17, 2006

It’s still not about information: Our current understanding of public reactions toward nano

Presentation at AAAS as part of panel on Engaging the Public on Controversial Science: Adapting Communication Strategies to the Media and the Audience

DATE: Sunday, February 19, 2006
TIME: 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

How does a miserly public form judgments about nanotechnology? How do citizens use their pre-existing values and perceptions to interpret information? In other words, why does the same piece of information mean different things to different people? And what are the implications for successful public communication strategies? Email me for a copy of the slides. I am also preparing a more in-depth discussion of these issues for a forthcoming column in Materials Today. Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

AAAS in St. Louis this weekend

2006 AAAS Annual Meeting
16–20 February 2006 • St. Louis, Missouri

“The program this year is designed to challenge us as scientists, engineers, teachers, and citizens to frame important scientific and societal problems in ways that create opportunities to apply the best in science and technology for broad benefit,” AAAS President Gilbert S. Omenn said. “We can mobilize individual disciplines and cross-disciplinary work on major national and global goals. We can boldly define problems and potential solutions for the decades ahead, thereby inspiring the scientific and engineering community and attracting young people to this mission.” overview piece: The rise of nanotechnology

"Nanotechnology began as part of an after-dinner talk in 1959 by the late Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate in physics, best-selling author and professor at the California Institute of Technology. He described molecular machines that could build with atomic precision.

Nearly two decades later, according to the Foresight Nanotech Institute website, the term “nano-technology” was first used in a scientific paper in 1974, and engineer and author Eric Drexler originated molecular nanotechnology concepts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1977.

The scanning-tunneling microscope – which let scientists see details of atomic structures and manipulate the structures – was invented in 1981, the buckyball (pure carbon with a spherical shape and hollow interior) was discovered in 1985, the first university nanotechnology course was offered in 1988, and the carbon nanotube (carbon atoms that form extended hollow tubes) was discovered in 1991."

Read Cheryl Pellerin's complete overview piece on

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

New European frames in media coverage of nano

"The Asbestos of Tomorrow" vs. "Nano Science" just reported on two new frames emerging in German-speaking coverage of nanotech. Frames are ways of presenting information in order to evoke certain interpretive schemas among audiences. A good example is the "estate tax" (or "death tax," if reframed negatively). The two terms obviously evoke very different interpretive schema among readers.

The two nano frames that are discussed in the swissinfo piece: "Der Asbest von morgen" [The Asbestos of Tomorrow] and "Nanowissenschaft" [Nanoscience] (as opposed to nanotechnology).

The first frame--the asbestos of tomorrow--will probably be used mostly by opponents to evoke fears and concerns similar to the ones about asbestos. What are the dangers, for instance, if tiny, invisible nanoparticles are inhaled or ingested by people?

The second frame--nanoscience--is an excellent way of relabeling the concept in order to emphasize the scientific aspects rather than the engineering or technology aspects, i.e., the fact that nanotechnology allows for modifications that do not occur in nature. This will be especially relevant when public discussion turns to nano applications in health and nutrition.

For a recent piece on the relationship between media frames and attitudes toward nanotech, see 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.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Nano can't learn from GMO experiences?

Drawing analogies between the social dynamics surrounding GMOs and nanotechnology is not only misleading but could also be dysfunctional for developing successful mechanisms for public engagement in the area of nanotechnology. Or at least that's what Ronald Sandler and W. D. Kay argue in their paper The GMO-Nanotech (Dis)Analogy? which was just published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society.

And the argument makes some intuitive sense. There are obvious differences with respect to how the two issues have emerged on the public arena and to the different ethical and legal implications of the two technologies. What may be somewhat simplistic, however, is the suggestion that comparisons between nano and GMOs automatically promote the idea "that securing public acceptance of emerging technologies should be the focus and orient the agendas of SEI research and public engagement" (p. 61). In fact, many public communication efforts--especially by academics--are explicitly aimed at providing the public with a balanced and understandable overview of the risks and benefits of new technologies that also takes into account the concerns and predispositions of audiences. Even with all this information on the table, of course, citizens may still reject new technologies. But at least they are less likely to do it for the wrong reasons.

The importance of basic research for society: Japan vs. the U.S.

Japan sees nanotechnology as one of the four key research areas that it will invest most heavily in during the next four years. Here are the specifics from today's UPI piece:

"In Japan's case, there is greater urgency both within and outside the administration that without investing more into basic research, the country will fall behind economically. As a result, the plan is to invest about $212 billion (25 trillion yen), or about 1 percent of its GDP, over the next five years into encouraging research in developing in four key areas: life sciences, information technology, environmental sciences and nanotechnology."

This interesting news, especially given Benjamin Wallace-Wells's bleak predictions about science and basic research in the U.S. earlier this month in The Washington Monthly:

"For decades, the United States ranked first in the world in the percentage of its GDP devoted to scientific research; now, we've dropped behind Japan, Korea, Israel, Sweden, and Finland. The number of scientific papers published by Americans peaked in 1992 and has fallen 10 percent; a decade ago, the United States led the world in scientific publications, but now it trails Europe. For two centuries, a higher proportion of Americans had gone to university than have citizens of any other country; now several nations in Asia and Europe have caught up."

And Nobel laureate David Baltimore was even more pessimistic in his LA Times piece a little more than a year ago: "We no longer have a lock on technology,” he wrote. “Europe is increasingly competitive, and Asia has the potential to blow us out of the water.”

Scientists taking initiative with green nano

It seems that scientists have learned from the communication debacles surrounding GMOs, biotech, and stem cell where Greenpeace and other policy groups very successfully framed public discourse and steered public perceptions with little or no input from scientists (for a good overview piece, see Matthew Nisbet, Dominique Brossard, and Adrianne Kroepsch's piece on "Framing Science"). In fact, scientists never publicly addressed many of the issues that ultimately became hot-button issues for the public, such as labeling for GM foods or the obvious moral implications surrounding stem cell. And most importantly, by the time scientists began to worry about these issues, the debate had already been framed by other players in the policy arena.

For nanotechnology, things seem to shape up at least somewhat differently. In fact, the Woodrow Wilson Center's "Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies" is taking the initiative by inviting scientists to debate the possibilities of environmentally safe nano research that minimizes risks to the public. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a trend of scientists playing much more of a public role than they have in the past.

Here's the information on the event:

Green Nanotechnology:
What Does It Mean to be Green?

Live webcast and event
Thursday, February 16, 2006, 2:00 – 3:00 p.m.
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 5th Floor Conference Room.

(The Wilson Center is located in the Ronald Reagan Building at 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC)


Dr. Jim Hutchinson, Professor of Chemistry, University of Oregon, head of the green chemistry HutchLab research group and holder of a U.S. patent for a process his lab created that manufactures a gold atom nanoparticle without the environmentally harmful effects usually associated with its creation

Dr. Barbara Karn, Visiting Scientist, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Dr. John Warner, Professor and Director, Green Chemistry Program School of Health and the Environment, University of Massachusetts at Lowell and co-author of The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry

(Media planning to cover the event should contact Sharon McCarter at (202) 691-4016 or at All others e-mail:

Friday, February 10, 2006

Global market potential for nano highest in the U.S., Germany and Japan

The "World Nanotechnology Market 2005" report predicted "that nanotechnology would exceed $1,000 billion by end 2010 in the world economy. The increase in demand for nanoscale materials, tools and devices would reach $28.7 billion in as soon as 2008. These would help medical scientists, engineers and other researchers to invent and innovate in the fields of health, IT, communications and consumer goods."

This is an even more optimistic outlook than the one provided in Rashid Bashir's column (see yesterday's posting). The most dominant players globally at this point -- based on the new
World Nanotechnology Market - Investor Guide™ (2006-2010): the U.S., Germany, and Japan ... with China and Taiwan emerging as contenders.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

More predictions about nano markets

Rashid Bashir of Purdue University provides an interesting summary of the market potential of nanotech in his recent column:

"The National Science Foundation predicts a global market for nanotech products and services could top $1 trillion by 2015, and up to 1 million jobs related to nanotech in the United States are expected to be created by then.

Nanotech in the food industry alone is estimated to leap from $2.6 billion a year today to $20.4 billion in 2010, according to a recent study by Helmut Kaiser Consultancy. Much of that will focus on detecting possible contaminants and prolonging the shelf life of food.

Federal funding for nanotech research, meanwhile, has quadrupled from about $270 million in 2000 to $1.08 billion in the current fiscal year, with about 4,000 government-funded research projects under way."

Read the complete column

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

"Think very, very small. Now think even smaller."

Jumping on the nano advertising bandwagon started by Apple, Atomic is now promoting the first nano breakthroughs in dowhill skiing. And their slogan is probably not very far off from what most people would come up with if they were asked to define nanotechnology: "Think very, very small. Now think even smaller."

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Purdue panel: "Media need to provide digestible info about nanotech"

Nanotech coverage in mainstream newspapers increased from 284 articles in 2000 to 1,730 in 2006, the Purdue Exponent reports, based on a recent panel on media coverage of nanotech at Purdue. What initially looks like a 600% increase, however, may be somewhat misleading. A quick LexisNexis search of New York Times coverage of scientific issues last year shows the following breakdown: 631 articles mentioned "biotechnology" in the headline, 290 mentioned 'stem cell," and a mere 35 mentioned "nanotechnology.

More importantly, however, the panel talked about the nature of coverage. Samuel Moore, one of the speakers and senior associate editor at IEEE Spectrum, argued that "nanotech experts should work with journalists to create digestible information, easily understandable by viewers." This is very much in line with findings from recent national opinion surveys that showed how audiences rely on heuristics or cognitive shortcuts in lieu of easily-available and easy-to-understand information about nanotech.

Monday, February 06, 2006

White House: $344 mio in nanofunding in 2007 as part of proposed budget

Just released on

"The Bush administration's fiscal 2006 budget proposal includes $344 million in spending next year for nanotechology research and development.

The R&D funding request for nanotechnology would target advances in manufacturing, materials, information technologies and medicine.

Other high-tech research provisions in the budget proposal released Monday (Feb. 7) included $132 billion for military and civilian R&D, including $5.6 billion for the National Science Foundation (NSF).

NSF would oversee cybersecurity research as part of a $94 million budget request to defend the nation's IT infrastructure from cyber attacks."

Here's the full text of the budget from the White House web site.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Upcoming AAAS panel on "Public communication about scientific controversies" (St. Louis, MO)

Engaging the Public on Controversial Science: Adapting Communication Strategies to the Media and the Audience

DATE: Sunday, February 19, 2006
TIME: 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Many science advocates hope that the mass media might be an important vehicle for informal education, enhancing the ability of citizens to make informed decisions about science-related controversies. Public opinion research shows that, with few exceptions, commercial mass media contribute very little to improving public knowledge of either the science or the politics involved in these controversies. Part of the reason is that audiences process media content in highly selective ways, relying heavily on readily available media messages that confirm pre-existing views. Another reason is that market and political forces lead to news and entertainment content that is low on scientific information, but heavy on persuasive imagery and symbols. The challenge is for the scientific community to craft communication strategies that are sensitive to both the way citizens process messages and the way media messages about science are constructed. Panelists will summarize the results of several recent national surveys and analyses that explore the interaction between mass media content and public knowledge and attitudes about embryonic stem cell research, intelligent design, nanotechnology, and agricultural biotechnology. The results of the studies are summarized in the context of evaluating existing communication efforts and proposing new strategies for public engagement.

Matthew Nisbet, The Ohio State University
The Political Marketing of Science: The Communication Battles over Stem Cell Research and Intelligent Design
Dietram A. Scheufele, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Affective Public Opinion? Mass Media and Emotional Responses to Nanotechnology
James Shanahan, Cornell University
The Agricultural Biotech Debate: Competing Messages and Diverging Views on Genetically Modified Organisms
Dominique Brossard (Discussant), University of Wisconsin, Madison