Sunday, April 30, 2006

Still little focus on risks in nano media coverage

In spite of early indications that coverage of nano risks has been on the rise since 2001, it seems that the relative amount of risk- and regulation-focused coverage is relatively stable. In fact, media coverage of nanotech continues to be framed in mostly positive terms around the economic and scientific benefits of the new technology. This is not too surprising, given that coverage is dominated by science writers (e.g., Rick Weiss at the Washington Post) and business writers (e.g., Barnaby Feder at the New York Times).

And even the sporadic flurry of articles about toxic bathroom sprays and potential brain damage in largemouth bass doesn’t seem to make much of a dent.

Here’s a quick analysis of Lexis Nexis I prepared for an upcoming talk. The percentage of articles devoted to risk(s) and regulation(s) seems to be fairly stable. What’s especially surprising is that even in the time periods where Magic Nano (see, for example, the nano|public posting from April 14, 2006) and the largemouth bass study (see Eva Oberdörster’s site) dominated nano coverage, we don’t see any spikes in the proportion of risk/regulation articles. This may change soon as the issue begins to appear on the radar of mainstream media outlets and conflict frames (corporate interests against consumer concerns) and episodic frames (impact of nanotech on individual consumers) will begin to dominate local TV newscasts and other human interest stories.

RAND conference calls for regulation of nano workplace

The RAND Corporation, an international think tank, just released a summary of their 2005 conference on occupational hazards related to nanotechnology. This from the press release:

“The U.S. government is providing insufficient funding and other resources to understand and manage risks that nanomaterials pose to the health of workers in the rapidly growing nanotechnology industry, according to participants in a workshop hosted by the RAND Corporation.

RAND today issued a report on the October 2005 workshop that brought together nanotechnology and health experts and representatives from industry, insurance firms, labor unions, and occupational health and safety organizations.”

What is especially interesting about the report are the parallels to lax governmental regulations of asbestos and other materials in the report:

“Although based on substances scientists already understand, nanomaterials essentially are new substances that can have properties that are very different from the bulk forms of the same chemicals. When present as small particles, some of these nanomaterials can penetrate deeply into the lungs, go through the skin, collect in various organs, and even pass through the blood-brain barrier.

According to the RAND report, government resources should focus on assessing the toxicity of nanomaterials, understanding how workers are exposed to such materials, and determining the effectiveness of measures to safeguard the health of workers. The multibillion-dollar investments in nanotechnology being made by private firms and the federal government will continue to be at risk if such steps are not taken, according to workshop participants. “

These concerns also mirror Rick Weiss’s lab rat analogy with respect to nano workplace safety (see nano|public posting from April 10, 2006). Interestingly enough, only about 1% of all federal R&D money has gone toward research relevant to understanding and managing the risks of occupational exposure to nanomaterials.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Materials Today column: "Five lessons in nano outreach"

Here's an excerpt of a column that just came out in Materials Today where I summarize “Five lessons for nano outreach.” The punch line: If we want to do nano outreach well, we need to develop a very fine-grained understanding of how citizens make sense of scientific information and tailor our communication strategies accordingly.

This has nothing to do with developing persuasive messages. Rather, it is about making information available to different publics in a way that allows them to overcome their specific informational deficits and that takes into account their specific habits and strategies for seeking out information about issues, such as nanotechnology.

Here’s a short excerpt. For a PDF version of the full column, click here.

"The lessons are simple. Science communication and education needs to address different audiences and abandon the idea of a “scientific citizen.” 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 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 another. On the contrary, my point is that if scientists want to have their views heard in public debate, they need to understand and use the tools that are available and appropriate for different audiences."

Tenfold growth for nano textiles?

Cientifica, an international consultancy, just released their predictions for nano-based textile markets. Cientifica reports that "textile applications of nanotechnologies are already a US$ 11 billion market, and will increase by a factor of ten by 2012."

Other predictions:

  • The market for textiles making use of nanotechnologies will reach US $13.6 billion by 2007, and expand to US $115 billion by 2012.
  • The value of nanomaterials supplied to the textile industry will reach US $8.6 billion by 2012.
  • Clothing textiles will still make up the largest share of the total textile market although sports/outdoor textiles and non-conventional technical textiles will exhibit far higher growth rates.
  • Nanotechnologies will provide incremental improvements to existing textile sectors, but offer the highest growth in the non-traditional sectors.

Click here for an executive summary in PDF format)

Friday, April 14, 2006

"Magic Nano“ will have its day in court

The District Attourney's office in Freiburg, Germany is investigating the makers of “Magic Nano” (see nano|public post from April 5, 2006) for inflicting bodily injury and violations of various food-related regulations, SWR Germany reports. Allegedly, the “Magic Nano” aerosol cans, which had been on the market for only a day, were labeled with a fake TÜV Süd approval sticker. TÜV Süd (Technischer Überwachungsverein Süd) is a testing and certification agency in southwest Germany. Kleinmann GmbH apparently sold about 4,000 cans of magic nano through the Penny supermarket chain before pulling the product off the market.

(For the full article in German, click here.)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

New Research Report from the U.K.: Nanoscience for Nanopublics

A new report by researchers at Lancaster University and Demos argues that we need "‘upstream’ public discussion about research and development of nanotechnologies." In fact, the report predicts that a "failure to engage the public in decisions about the use and regulation of nanotechnologies could generate a controversy similar to that over genetically modified food."

"Through interviews with scientists and policymakers, and by spending time in nanoscience laboratories, the project tried to draw out the implicit assumptions – what are sometimes termed the ‘imaginaries’ – of key players in the nanotechnology field. This was followed by a series of public focus groups, which explored questions of risk, responsibility and control, and identified potential faultlines of public controversy.

At a final workshop, a group of nanoscientists and citizens shared their hopes, fears and concerns. The tone of their conversation was open and realistic, and generated a surprising degree of consensus, as members of the public developed a better sense of life in the laboratory, and the scientists grew to appreciate the legitimacy of public concerns."

(For a PDF copy of the full report, click here.)

As p art of the ESRC-funded project, the researchers also produced a short video, documenting the meeting between 12 scientists and members of the public during the final "Nanoscientists Meet Nanopublics" workshop of the meeting.

Public communication: Nano and cancer

More news on nano and cancer. NIH's Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer produced an interesting movie, outlining the potential benefits of nanotechnology as the "new frontier in cancer research." The voiceover promises technology that is "safe for both the body and the environment" and a "responsible development" of nano-based applications for cancer treatment.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Curing Cancer and Killing Workers: Media Coverage of Nano

Recent news coverage of nanotech is torn between framing the new technology as a breakthrough technology and emphasizing its hidden dangers. The “curing cancer” frame competes with “nanotech workers as lab rats,” reminiscent of the lax stance that U.S. regulatory bodies took in the past on issues, such as asbestos.

Here are two recent examples:

Study uses nanoparticles to kill cancer cells
By Joanne Morrison (Reuters)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Researchers have found a way to target cancer cells by injecting tiny particles that will attack only the diseased cells while leaving healthy cells unscathed, according to a study released on Monday.

A team of researchers working at MIT and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston laced tiny particles with lethal doses of chemotherapy and when injected they targeted cancer cells alone.

(For the full story, click here.)

Nanotech workers are lab rats in experiment with no controls
By Rick Weiss (The Washington Post)

RENO, Nev. - To tour the gleaming offices of Altair Nanotechnologies Inc. is to see why the U.S. Commerce Department calls nanotech "the next industrial revolution" -- a revolution not of smelters and smokestacks but of precision-engineered carbon "buckyballs" one-ten-thousandth the size of the head of a pin and microscopic nanospheres that can pack the power of a car battery in a napkin-thin wafer.

But in the heart of Altair's manufacturing area, the future looks a lot like the past. […]

Men in grease-stained blue coats navigate catwalks atop hulking, two-story-tall spray-drying machines. Forklift drivers steer 55-gallon drums of chemicals. Workers' face masks gather a film of pale dust as they empty buckets of freshly made powders to be used in batteries and premium paints.

Thousands of workers like these are participants in an occupational health experiment.

(For the full story, click here.)

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Magic Nano: Nanotech Product Recalled in Germany

Here's a preview of a piece in tomorrow's Washington Post about a health-related recall of a nano-based bathrom cleaner.

"By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 6, 2006; Page A02

Government officials in Germany have reported what appears to be the first health-related recall of a nanotechnology product, raising a potential public perception problem for the rapidly growing but still poorly understood field of science.

At least 77 people reported severe respiratory problems over a one-week period at the end of March -- including six who were hospitalized with pulmonary edema, or fluid in the lungs -- after using a "Magic Nano" bathroom cleansing product, according to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Berlin.

Symptoms generally cleared up within 18 hours, though some had persistent breathing problems for days."

(Click here for the full article.)

The product, called "Magic Nano," is distributed by Kleinmann GmbH in Sonnenbühl, Germany. The company itself reported about 30 cases of customers who reported health problems. Specific information about an additional 80 cases can be found on the web page of the Giftinformationszentrum-Nord at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen.

Kleinmann GmbH and its suppliers are researching the potential causes of the health problems. Regardless of the findings, this issue will certainly provide further ammunition to those promoting a more thorough public debate about the potential harmful effects of nanotech.

History repeating itself? Public reactions to biotech and nanotech

Julian Cribb, an adjunct professor of science communication at the University of Technology, Sydney, writes about the potential for a public backlash against nanotech in The Australian. His conclusion: There is a real possibility of widespread public concern. And a scientific literacy aproach is not the solution.

In fact, Cribb argues, a more scientifically-knowledgeable public will also be a more sceptical public. While there is little empirical evidence to support this claim, Cribb's argument is at least worth considering. If members of the public are really behaving like scientists, he writes, they will be sceptical of research and critically evaluate each new study. The key problem, of course: They also lack the scientific expertise that s necessary to make comprehensive and accurate judgments, regardless of how high their lay scientific literacy may be.

A few
"The question is: Will the nanobrigade make the same fundamental error as the biobrigade? Will they do magnificent science, only to see it rejected, stalled and bagged by the community? Will the huge investment fail to deliver because we overlooked the most basic issue: whether people want it?

"Nanotech is starting with several big handicaps. First, it is highly complex and most people have only the vaguest idea what it is about. Much of the language is opaque and alienating.

Second, there are unanswered questions about the safety of (quantum) nano devices and how they will interact with living tissue.

Third, there has been a lot of hype about wonderful new applications, and this makes the public nervous about the downsides they are not being told about. In other words, the communication has so far been one-sided and unbalanced.

Fourth, large investors include defence establishments, which clearly hope the technology will deliver more efficient means to make war. That is, like nuclear science, harmful applications of nanotech are already being contemplated and the public knows this.

Fifth, once quantum computers and nanobots/nanosensors are invented they will have massive power to amass data on every person living in an advanced society, and to observe, store and analyse all their actions. This may become the gravest infringement of personal liberty in history."