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.

McDonalds wraps burgers in nano

Nanotech|buzz posted this back in July, but it’s only now getting traction on other news wires:
Ecosynthetix has just contracted with an Ohio manufacturer to produce McDonald's "clamshells", the clamshell-shaped cardboard boxes the burgers come in. Ecosynthetix's nanoparticle adhesives will help replace the polyvinyl acetate, PVA, and polyvinyl alcohol, PVOH, used to help laminate graphics onto the cardboard. […]
It'll be interesting to see if there's any backlash when consumers realize their McDonald's burgers are in contact with nanoparticles. There's no indication of any harmful effects from this, but as the Magic Nano recall showed, we're not always rational when it comes to new additives in (or in contact with) our foods.”

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Engaging Science

Britain’s Wellcome Trust just released a new book on Engaging Science: Thoughts, deeds, analysis and action, edited by Jon Turney. Since I contributed a chapter, I am just reporting the release here without any further commentary:
“'Engaging Science: Thoughts, deeds, analysis and action' features essays from leading researchers, practitioners and commentators. It examines what we have learned about the relationships between these groups over the past decade and what the implications are for future practice.

Topics include public attitudes to science, the role of the media in public engagement, the scientists' perspective, implications for education, linking the public to policy making and the role of campaigning groups.

'Engaging Science' also includes summaries of key trust-funded projects and initiatives supported over the past decade.”

European companies: Nano is nature

Nanotechnology may be golf clubs and squash rackets in the minds of the U.S. public. In Europe, companies would like to make sure that people think "nature" when they think "nano."

This may or may not be a reaction to the public relations disaster that surrounded biotechnology and GMOs in Europe. But it is noticeable how absent the "technology" part is from most descriptions of nanotech products.

Thomas Merlo & Partner AG, for example, trademarked the name Nano Nuno® for their line of kitchenware and bed and table covers. The tagline for their nanotech-based products: “High tech inspired by nature.”

And the nature frame appears in product names, catalog descriptions, and on web sites. Heinrich Heine GmbH, a German mail order department store, sells Nano Nuno® placemats:

“Das innovative Designprodukt besitzt die natürliche Oberflächenstruktur des Lotusblattes - Fettspritzer, Salatsauce, Rotwein oder Kaffee perlen wie Regenwasser ab und lassen sich ganz einfach abtupfen, und das Wende-Platzset ist wieder sauber.”

[“The innovatively designed product has the same natural surface structure as the leaf of a lotus flower – grease, salad dressing, red wine or coffee roll off like a drop of rain and can just be wiped off. And the placemat is clean again.”]

The Lotus Effect® trademark I blogged about on Friday feeds directly into the “nano is nature” idea. ProIdee, the German equivalent of SharperImage, for example, sells Nano Nuno® umbrellas. As their catalog puts it: nano just copies nature:

“In der Natur sorgt eine winzige, raue Nanostruktur auf den Blättern der Lotuspflanze für einen faszinierenden Effekt: Schmutz und Wasser perlen einfach ab. Denn die Haftfläche ist wesentlich geringer als bei einer glatten Oberfläche. Ihr NanoNuno®-Regenschirm funktioniert nach diesem natürlichen Prinzip. So dringt Feuchtigkeit erst gar nicht ins Gewebe. Kein umständliches Trocknen. Dieses Verfahren wurde in jahrelanger Forschung in der Schweiz entwickelt.

[“In nature, the leaves of the lotus flower are covered with tiny, fine-grained nanostructures that have a fascinating effect: dirt and water simply roll off. That’s because there’s much less direct surface area that these materials can attach themselves to. Your NanoNuno® umbrella is based on the same principle. That also means that humidity can’t get into the fabric. No hassle with wet umbrellas. The procedure was developed in years of research in Switzerland.”]

Friday, August 18, 2006

Lotus Effects: Nano is good for the environment?

The Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany’s more left-leaning elite newspapers, just published a piece on environmental applications of nanotech. Two aspects of the article are especially interesting.

First, the article is one of the first examples of national mainstream media coverage in Germany on the positive environmental impacts of nanotechnology. The article talks about nano-based interior paint, for example, that can help break down chemicals, such as PCP, and destroy bacteria and fungi. It also reports on exterior paints that are water and dirt repellant. Wilhelm Barthlott at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn has trademarked the principle behind these paints as Lotus Effect®.

The second interesting aspect is the fact that this research is funded by both industry (Degussa, Ferro, etc.) and foundations, such as the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU), which funds projects related to environmental protection and conservation. This may seem like a strange partnership at first, but makes a lot more sense in a country like Germany where environmental issues have long been an integral of the political agenda on both sides of the aisle and where public opinion therefore drives a lot or corporate decision making

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Pre-emptive framing: Business vs. interest groups

Merck & Co., Inc. (or Merck Sharp & Dohme, as it is known outside the US) has launched their “Putting patients first” campaign, with a series of TV ads currently running on network and cable television.

Faced with fierce public opposition from religious organizations and environmental groups on issues, such as stem cell, biotech, and nanotech, companies like Merck are beginning image campaigns that parallel those already used by European pharmaceutical firms (see nano|public posting from July 10, 2006). These campaigns are a direct response to issues like the Vioxx debacle, but they also have a more long-term goal: to prevent future backlashes against emerging technologies

Ther Merck advertisements, especially the “Achievement” ad, does an excellent job of with promoting positive images of science and scientists, and highlighting individual benefits for patients and consumers as the primary goal of scientific research.

More importantly, however, the ad frames research on emerging technologies as a question of ethics and trust, and associates the Merck brand with these “high standards” of doing research and doing business. Pre-emptive ad campaigns like these are especially interesting since Merck and others are taking their strategies directly from the playbooks of Greenpeace and other environmental interest groups, who successfully took ownership of issues like trust and ethics during previous public debates on biotech or fossil fuels.

Here’s an excerpt from the ad (to see the full TV ad, click here):

“… our 8,000 scientists conduct exciting new research --- to develop medicines that prevent and cure diseases, like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. [Richard T. Clark, CEO & President, Merck & Co., Inc.:] “Here at Merck we have always believed that the process of discovering new medicines has to include rigorous scientific research, conducted under high standards of ethical behavior. Meeting these high standards is at the heart of what we are and how we do business.”

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Nano paint for Mercedes-Benz

Daimler Chrysler AG’s lineup of new Mercedes vehicles are all available with a new, nano-based paint that is scratch resistant and gives the car an “intensive glow” when exposed to sunlight. The implications for nano and society? Probably minimal. But I grew up in Stuttgart, Germany, which gives every story about Mercedes-Benz immediate news value.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

FDA task force on how to communicate … among other things

The Food and Drug Administration has just formed an internal task force to help them develop a better understanding of recent developments in nanotech and of the regulatory issues surrounding the nanosize materials ... and, more as an afterthought, it seems, to develop strategies for successfully communicating with the public.
“Acting Commissioner of Food and Drugs Andrew C. von Eschenbach, M.D., today announced the formation of an internal FDA Nanotechnology Task Force. The new task force is charged with determining regulatory approaches that encourage the continued development of innovative, safe and effective FDA-regulated products that use nanotechnology materials.

The task force will identify and recommend ways to address any knowledge or policy gaps that exist so as to better enable the agency to evaluate possible adverse health effects from FDA-regulated products that use nanotechnology materials. FDA will continue to address product-specific nanotechnology-related issues on an ongoing basis.

‘As this exciting new area of science develops, FDA must be positioned to address both health promotion and protection challenges that it may present,’ said Dr. von Eschenbach. ‘Through this task force, we are leveraging our expertise and resources to guide the science and technology in the development of nanotechnology-based applications.’”

(click here for the full release; the first step will be a public hearing on October 10 of this year)

And the list of challenges that the task force is charged with includes virtually every issue surrounding the science of nanotechnology and its societal impacts. This is a step in the right direction, since it acknowledges that emerging technologies, such as nanotech, are increasingly debated as political rather than scientific issues.

But an exploratory internal committee like this only makes sense, if the FDA plans to appoint topic-specific advisory boards later on. These would obviously include advisory boards and task forces in the natural sciences. But they will also have to include expert panels from the social sciences on public attitudes and on successful communication with the general public.

Understanding the scientific implications or nanotechnology and having a functioning regulatory system in place is half of the battle. The other half is communicating successfully with the public about what regulations are needed and what kinds of research are being done. As I have argued before, public communication does not happen in a vacuum. It is a competition among interest groups, governmental agencies, scientific associations, and other players in the policy arena over limited space on the public agenda, and over which frames will dominate public discourse.

Let's hope the FDA task force will pay close attention to these issues. Communication researchers at places like Wisconsin or Cornell have been doing cutting-edge research for decades on public attitudes toward emerging technologies and on how to successfully communicate with various publics. To not capitalize on this expertise through specific task forces or committees would be shortsighted at the very least, especially given some of the communication debacles surrounding biotech, stem cell research, and the Intelligent Design debate.

Here’s the list of specific goals for the FDA task force ... including public communication, if you scroll all the way down:
  • Chair a public meeting to help FDA further its understanding of developments in nanotechnology materials that pertain to FDA-regulated products, including new and emerging scientific issues such as those pertaining to biological interactions that may lead to either beneficial or adverse health effects. This public meeting is scheduled for October 10.
  • Assess the current state of scientific knowledge pertaining to nanotechnology materials for purposes of carrying out FDA's mission.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the agency's regulatory approaches and authorities to meet any unique challenge that may be presented by the use of nanotechnology materials in FDA-regulated products.
  • Explore opportunities to foster innovation using nanotechnology materials to develop safe and effective drugs, biologics and devices, and to develop safe foods, feeds, and cosmetics.
  • Continue to strengthen FDA's collaborative relationships with other federal agencies, including the agencies participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as with foreign government regulatory bodies, international organizations, healthcare professionals, industry, consumers, and other stakeholders to gather information regarding nanotechnology materials used or that could be used in FDA-regulated products.
  • Consider appropriate vehicles for communicating with the public about the use of nanotechnology materials in FDA-regulated products.
  • Submit its initial findings and recommendations to the Acting Commissioner within nine months of the public meeting.