Monday, July 31, 2006

Debating nano: Foresight vs. ETC

Popular Science just published an interesting online debate on the potential dangers and public reactions of nano. At the very least it provides a good overview of the current talking points on both sides.
"[I]s nanotech getting an unfairly bad rap? Manipulation of materials at the nano level has potentially ground-breaking applications for medicine, for example [...] , and some scientists worry that one of the industry’s biggest challenges will be overcoming its PR problem.

To get to the heart of the issue, we talked to two experts on opposing sides of the debate. Hope Shand, research director of Ontario-based human rights organization ETC Group has called for a worldwide moratorium on nanotech until the full scope of the technology, and its risks, can be understood. Christine Peterson is founder and VP of Public Policy for the Foresight Institute, a think-tank in Menlo Park, CA dedicated to the beneficial implementation of nanotechnology. Here, they face off about the big picture of this small-scale science."

Popular Science Web exclusive

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Nano Cafés: Engaging the interested

This month, UW–Madison’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center and the Citizens' Coalition on Nanotechnology in Madison, WI co-sponsored the first Nano Café.
"The Nano Café provides a casual atmosphere in which people who don't know a lot about nanotechnology can listen to experts, ask questions and share concerns.

UW-Madison experts will explain their work, answer questions and address concerns from members of the public as part of a lively conversation about the impact of recent research.

The focus of the event is definitely on the questions of those in attendance, most of whom are non-scientists. No science background is required!

We want The Nano Cafés to be as democratic and participative as possible: at each Nano Café, we will ask the attendees to point out the themes they want to hear more about during the next Nano Cafés.

You are also invited to join us and help organize future Nano Cafés."

I’ve written before about the importance of public meetings and citizen forums for informing specific, interested publics and for soliciting feedback from highly-engaged stakeholders. The UW Nano Cafés are somewhat different for a variety of reasons.

Most importantly, the Madison Nano Café emerged from a consensus conference on nanotechnology organized by Daniel Kleinman and Maria Powell as part of the UW- Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center. In other words, it is citizen-initiated, rather than being part of systematic outreach efforts by a university, governmental agency, or non-profit.

But this also demonstrates the key problem with self-recruited groups, like the Nano Café. We tend to socialize with people like us. We live in neighborhoods that mirror our own lifestyle, socioeconomic status, and often even ideologies. In my own research on political participation, for example, my co-authors and I* demonstrated that people are more likely to choose discussion partners that are homogenous in terms of demographic variables and ideological preferences. And that problem, of course is exacerbated in a mostly white and predominantly liberal town like Madison, WI where people are much less likely to run into people that are different from them in the first place.

That same line of research, however, also suggests that talking to others about political or scientific issues is good, regardless of how homogenous or heterogeneous the group may be. So what does this mean for Nano Cafés? They can play an important role in engaging interested sub-publics. And they allow for an exchange between scientists and citizens on the public’s “turf,” i.e., in a setting determined by the community, rather than a lecture hall or conference room with assigned speakers and moderated Q&A sessions.

But ironically, the people who attend Nano Cafes are probably also the ones who need them the least. Nano Cafés are not for the vast majority of the public who know and care little about scientific issues, who subscribe to Us Weekly rather than the Scientific American, and who go to a sports bar after work rather than a fair trade coffee shop with for-sale art on the walls. And most of them probably don't discuss the potential toxic nature of nanoparticles.

* Scheufele, D. A., Hardy, B., Brossard, D., Waismel-Manor, I. S., & Nisbet., E. (forthcoming). Democracy based on difference: Examining the links between structural heterogeneity, heterogeneity of discussion networks, and democratic citizenship. Journal of Communication.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

BioScience Editorial: Framing Biology

Timothy M. Beardsley, Editor in Chief of BioScience magazine, recently wrote about message framing as a key component of successful public communication about emerging technologies. His editorial requires no additional commentary. Here are just a few sections (click here to see the complete article from BioScience magazine:
"Although some scientists might want to do no more than lament ignorant attitudes and return to their terminals, they risk being marginalized in an often unsympathetic political climate. Frames suggest an alternative strategy. Nisbet proposes that communicators who specialize in science and analyze ethics and policy options better than many of today's journalists could be more effective in educating the public about scientific issues. Unfortunately, many mainstream media outlets are now shedding science correspondents, not hiring new ones, so researchers may have to shoulder more of the burden of communication themselves. The Internet increasingly makes that possible. Yet although some scientists have long been exceptional communicators, the shift in roles will require mental readjustments.

The frames concept recognizes that facts are not enough to win popularity; emotional responses need to be excited as well. Scientists may find that notion alarming, because scholarly communications must be forthright about the uncertainties of scientific analysis and recognize its always provisional nature. That is a crucial part of science, but it does not yield enthusiasts. And since not everyone can be an expert, enthusiasts who believe science is important in big decisions are needed to spread science's influence."

Here are a few citations to my own work on the concept of framing and its applications to science communication:
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.

Scheufele, D. A. (2000). Agenda-setting, priming, and framing revisited: Another look at cognitive effects of political communication. Mass Communication & Society, 3(2), 297-316.

Scheufele, D. A. (1999). Framing as a theory of media effects. Journal of Communication, 49(1), 103 122.
For commentary on framing, politics, and science, see also Matthew C. Nisbet's Framing Science blog.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Memo on FY 2008 budget: High priority for nano research "on societal implications, human health, and environmental issues

Nanotechnology is among six interagency R&D priorities outlined in a memo by OSTP Director John Marburger and OMB Director Rob Portman on science spending in the FY 2008 budget. These six areas, the memo states, “should receive special focus in agency budget requests." They are Homeland Security, Energy Security, Advanced Networking and High-End Computing, National Nanotechnology Initiative, Understanding Complex Biological Systems, and Environment.

The memo also predicts at least 7 percent increases in funding for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology:
"Presidential Priority: The American Competitiveness Initiative "To build on America's unparalleled economic success and to remain a leader in science and technology, President Bush has proposed the American Competitiveness Initiative. The centerpiece of the American Competitiveness Initiative is the President's strong commitment to double investment over ten years in key Federal agencies that support basic research in the physical sciences and engineering that has potentially high impact on economic competitiveness. President Bush plans to double investment by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology core activities. To achieve this doubling within ten years, overall annual increases for these three agencies will average roughly seven percent. Specific allocations will be based on research priorities and opportunities. In addition to the doubling effort at these three agencies, similarly high-impact basic and applied research of the Department of Defense should be a significant priority."

The goal for the National Nanotech Initiative is to
“support both basic and applied research in nanoscience, develop instrumentation and methods for nanoscale characterization and metrology, and disseminate new technical capabilities, including those to help industry advance nanofabrication and nanomanufacturing. Because research at the nanoscale offers natural bridges to interdisciplinary collaboration, especially at the intersection of the life and physical sciences, the Administration encourages novel approaches to accelerating interdisciplinary and interagency collaborations. Activities such as joint programs utilizing shared resources or leveraging complementary assets, as well as support for interdisciplinary activities at centers and user facilities should receive higher relative priority.

The last paragraph of this section is especially interesting:
To ensure that nanoscience research leads to the responsible development of beneficial applications, high priority should be given to research on societal implications, human health, and environmental issues related to nanotechnology and agencies should develop, where applicable, cross-agency approaches to the funding and execution of this research."

(Click here for a PDF version of the memo.)

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Framing 101: Early advertising on core messages

As a follow-up to the previous posting, here are two advertisements that currently run in German print media. My colleague Matthew C. Nisbet over at framing science already explained how some of these ads can be used to frame public discourse and change the interpretive schema that audiences use to think about scientific breakthroughs.

What’s most interesting about these ads is the lack of focus on a specific product or innovation. They are all about corporate image and about the notion of scientific breakthroughs serving the common good. The IBM ad, for example concludes by saying:
“This service of the IBM Computational Biotechnology Center is only one of many resources that is also available to you, should you ever need it. Interested in innovation for results? Talk to the company that inspires innovative thinkers: IBM.

What makes you so unique? IBM.”

The phrase “innovation for results,” of course, frames the core message: Emerging technologies have direct, measurable benefits for individual consumers. In fact, the IBM ad explicitly refers to the idea of individualized medications based on a patient’s DNA code.

The second ad is the one that was featured on framing science before. Sponsored by pharmaceutical firms, it features patients who survived severe illness because they underwent various innovative treatments. The consistent message across all different versions of the print ad: Research is important and research will benefit everyone.
“We are already able to help millions of people. But we can’t help everybody yet. That’s why we continue to do research. And we think everyone should get the very best medicine.”

The communication battle over nanotech: Business, media, and interest groups get ready for round 1

While scientists and outreach specialists still frown at the idea of strategic communication and understanding the often value-based and emotionally driven dynamics surrounding public opinion on nanotechnology, companies and interest groups are preparing for an elaborate communication battle with a largely informed and uninterested public.

And industry consultants and journalists are beginning to outline the broad parameters of that battle. Sam Jaffe writes in Wired Magazine:

“A little bad PR can go a long way toward destroying the public's confidence in a product, especially when it comes to potential damage to human health -- just ask Monsanto. Whether it was fair, GMO became a dirty word, and if the nanotech industry isn't careful its products could suffer the same fate.

A study released by Lux Research in late June advised companies with nanotech offerings to be alert not only to real risks, but also to perceived risks that could undermine consumer acceptance of their products, even if they pose no actual danger.”
(Click here for the full article.)

The Lux Research report Jaffe is referring to, came out late last month. Here is one a short summary of the key points from Laser Focus World magazine:

“On perceptual risks, the public's outlook on nanotech remains positive despite a lack of knowledge, but press coverage and agitation from NGOs mean that firms won't be able to dodge these questions much longer. Instead of remaining silent, companies need a communications strategy to share their safety studies, collaborate with trusted partners, and explain the benefits nanotech can bring.”
(Click here for the full article.)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

One more take on outreach: research festivals?

With co-sponsorship from trade associations and nano businesses, scientists at the University of Warwick in the UK have organized a “Research Festival” on nanotechnology. Aimed at school-age children and interested members of the public, the conference will include talks about “nanochannels, nanofluidics, nanobots, nanotubes, nanodots, nanoimaging and … exciting lectures, and research presentations by both industry and academia” (for a full description of the activities, see the web site and press release).

While focusing some of their efforts on K-12 education is probably the right approach, it is less clear if pep talks by scientists and industry representatives are the best way of addressing potential concerns and questions from the general public. And a closer look at the press release seems to suggest that this is less an effort of public outreach than a promotional effort on the part of scientists and industry.

In fact, the press release explicitly refers to the conference as part of a “campaign to improve the public’s understanding and acceptance of nanotechnology with a special conference aimed at local schoolchildren and members of the public. The move comes amid warnings that British science will suffer unless the attitudes of policy makers and media change.”

A more interesting approach comes from Dublin City University in Ireland where researchers try to inform policy making by examining and listening to concerns and hopes of the general public. Jointly organized by communication researchers and physicists, the public discussion on nanotechnology tomorrow is as much about listening to the public as it is about informing citizens:

The background to the public discussion, project manager Brian Trench, head of the School of Communications at DCU, told, is that “DCU is conducting research on public attitudes to and awareness of nanotechnology as a new area of science technology that’s attracting interest in the international scientific community and the science funding communities and of which there are already some significant practitioners here in Ireland (Trinity College Dublin, Intel, Bell Labs)”.

He continued: “This is a relatively new area which has attracted a great deal of money and interest in the US in particular. Ireland has the option to decide that this too is an area of interest along with the other areas like biotechnology and information communication technologies and so on.”

The new science strategy published last week makes a few passing references to nanotechnology. Trench commented: “None of them represent any major commitment in this area but certainly show the Government and the state agencies are actively looking at this as an area of investment in research and development (R&D).” Prior to R&D investment decision being made, the event aims to discover what the current picture is regarding public awareness and public attitudes.

“We’re looking at what people know about it and what they care about it. If they know anything, are they hopeful or are they fearful? What benefits do they see? What applications are they interested?”

(for the complete article from, click here.)

We knew this was coming: nano-sized soccer field

Just in time for the first all-European FIFA worldcup semi-finals in 24 years, German researchers at the University of Kaiserslautern built what they claim to be the the world's smallest soccer field. The field is 300 by 580 nanometers in size, which means that 20,000 little soccer fields could fit on the tip of a hair.

This latest iteration of "the world's smallest soccer field" dwarves previous attempts by researchers at the University of Chemnitz and the University of Bochum ... no pun intended.