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.