Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Forget hybrids, think Volkswagen Nanospyder

This is a news item from a while back, but since it never really got any traction in mainstream media or on blogs, I am reposting it here. In line with the "nano is nature" frame predominant in Europe, Volkswagen entered the Nanospyder as an environmentally-friendly concept car for the California market to the LA Auto Show Design Challenge. Of course, this is America, so the Hummer O2 ended up winning the challenge, but the Nanospyder concept is nonetheless interesting.

"Nanospyder is the work of a team of three young designers – Patrick Faulwetter, Daniel Simon and Ian Hilton - based at the Volkswagen Design Center in Santa Monica. They created the Nanospyder in response to a challenge laid down by ‘Design Los Angeles’, a conference set to take place at the upcoming Los Angeles Motorshow in November. The brief – unlike the solution – was simple. To design a vehicle able to make the most of California without harming the environment.

The team met its brief by thinking well beyond current manufacturing techniques. According to its creators the Nanospyder would be formed out of a latticework of billions of tiny programmable nano devices measuring less than half a millimetre in diameter. Each of these tiny devices can be programmed to be as strong or weak as required meaning active crumple zones can be created. The ‘spine’ of the vehicle, onto which the rest of the components are attached, remains immensely strong."

(Click here for the full story from back in November, 2006.)

Nanotech advertising goes mainstream: Forthcoming BusinessWeek ad section

Major news outlets are beginning to pay attention to nano ... not just as a news item, but also when it comes to potential advertisers. On March 26, 2007, BusinessWeek will come out with their first ever special advertising section on nanotech.

(Click here for the full story.)

Sunday, February 25, 2007

An economic argument for pre-emptive U.S. nano regulations

Stratfor, a global intelligence consultancy, just released new predictions for global industry regulations, including nanotechnology. Even though their analyses severely underestimate the importance of country-specific communication and opinion environments, one aspect of their argument is well taken. Regulations in Europe or other G8 countries will directly impact regulatory efforts (or attempts to avoid regulations) in the U.S.

And it therefore make sense for U.S. corporations to establish standards preemptively before interest groups and opponents of nanotech have an opportunity to frame the issue around the need for consistent global rules. Or to turn the argument around: It could be a very effective strategy for organizations who are pushing for more regulations of nanotech to promote global governing bodies or even industry norms in order to force the issue onto the domestic agenda.
Here's an excerpt from the Stratfor report:

"Many countries are beginning to investigate methods for regulating nanotech applications, particularly with consumer safety considerations in mind, but none yet have put forth a comprehensive regulation. If a successful movement for regulation of nanotechnology develops in Europe or Japan, the precedent would change the situation facing the industry markedly. With that in mind, the U.S. nanotech industry could drum up support for its preferred regulatory structure from a group considered credible in the United States (for example, the Harvard Medical School or the National Research Council), but this would not ensure that a country with greater influence among U.S. legislators (the European Union or Japan) wouldn't be able to sway the course of U.S. policy.

The crucial point, of course, has little to do with the future of nanotechnology regulation, but rather with the fact that industry and other interest groups increasingly will find themselves monitoring social and political events worldwide -- including regions in which they have no market ambitions -- simply in order to shore up their regulatory efforts in the United States or other countries of primary concern."

(Click here for the full Stratfor story.)

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Self-replicating robots are making a media comeback

A Boston Globe op-ed today on the next generation of threats from emerging technologies tried to resuscitate public debate over self replicating robots, grey goo, and GNR technologies (the acronym refers to genetics, nanotech and robotics) .
"[W]e are now seeing advances in the fields of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (so-called GNR technologies ) that threaten destruction even more horrific than that of atomic devices or climate change.

These technologies, often self-replicating, don't need the massive industrial infrastructure required to manufacture nuclear devices, and have the potential to kill tens or hundreds of millions of people in relatively short order."

(Click here for the complete op-ed.)

Very much like the 2000 Wired Magazine article on "Why the future doesn't need us," the Boston Globe op-ed draws on often speculative predictions by Ray Kurzweil, author of "The singularity is near." Back in 2000, Wired urged its readers:

"If we could agree, as a species, what we wanted, where we were headed, and why, then we would make our future much less dangerous - then we might understand what we can and should relinquish. Otherwise, we can easily imagine an arms race developing over GNR technologies, as it did with the NBC technologies in the 20th century. This is perhaps the greatest risk, for once such a race begins, it's very hard to end it. This time - unlike during the Manhattan Project - we aren't in a war, facing an implacable enemy that is threatening our civilization; we are driven, instead, by our habits, our desires, our economic system, and our competitive need to know."

(Click here for the full article.)

Also, YouTube has a nice clip of Kurzweil's stomp speech on this topic.

These challenges from GNR technologies, the Boston Globe op-ed claims, can be addressed, but only if we have an in-depth public debate about grey goo scenarios and the potential broader impacts of GNR technologies.
"Before our best scientific minds can be heard, they will have to be joined by a new generation of political leaders.

Only then can these more potent threats to mankind's existence become the focus of our efforts and resources. None of those resources will be allocated until public opinion becomes as engaged on threats from genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics as on nuclear proliferation and climate change."

Such all-encompassing calls for public engagement are somewhat interesting, of course, given how much trouble scientists and social scientists continue to have even when trying to encourage a meaningful public dialogue about current applications of nanotechnology. Mixing speculative scenarios of what may at some point be possible with the already complex scientific realities of today, will unfortunately do little to inform the very limited public discourse that currently exists about this issue.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

"Science has a serious marketing problem," says Googe founder at 2007 AAAS keynote

At his AAAS keynote on Friday, Google co-founder Larry Page repeated what science communication scholars have been preaching for a while now. Scientists need to turn to communication experts to resolve the apparent disconnect between science, communication, and the public.

"Scientists and engineers can change the world, but first they need to get over their “serious marketing problem,” according to Larry Page, the founding CEO of the Internet giant Google.

Page called scientists “great citizens,” but he stressed that they need to become more engaged in politics, business and the media if they are to “basically improve our lot in life by doing really great things.”

“It’s not that hard to do this,” he encouraged the audience during his Friday plenary address at the AAAS Annual Meeting. “We need to have the right attitude about it and we need to think that business and entrepreneurship…are going to be good for this and are important parts of science.”


But harnessing the full potential of science and technology will require a better “sell” of science’s possibilities to policymakers, business leaders and the public, Page cautioned. “Science has a serious marketing problem, I’m really sure of that. And virtually none of the marketers in the world work for science.”

(Click here for the full AAAS press release.)

New blog: Law and nano

The Porter Wright Morris & Arthur law firm just started a new blog devoted to legal issues surrounding nanotech. Among other news, Nanotechnology Law Report will provide a weekly summary called "Nanotechnology Week in Review" every Friday. For the first installment, click here.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Nanotech at AAAS: Regulations vs. social science?

Nanotech -- like biotech -- is an issue that bridges science, politics, and markets. And a narrow scientific focus on safety and regulations ignores many critical influences on long-term public support for nanotech. This is one of the lessons from an editorial in the most recent issue of Nature Biotechnology on the closing of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. In spite of much criticism, the editorial argues, one of the key contributions of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology was to bring different stakeholders to the table:
"One criticism of Pew is that too often it placed undue emphasis on the perceived risks of recombinant technology without providing sufficient context on the risks of other conventional approaches, creating an impression of controversy where none exists. What's more, to get people with divergent views to sit around the same table, Pew provided all comers with equal time and weight in the policy discussion, regardless of whether their opinions were backed by scientific data; in some instances, detractors argued this gave certain viewpoints more credence and validation than they deserved."
Dismissing some of the arguments made in these debates because of their non-scientific nature, of course, ignores the realities of consumer markets. Consumers are wiling to overpay for luxury SUVs because of a small yellow-and-black logo, and they boycott and firebomb Shell gas stations because of moral outrage over an out-of-commission oil rig. And they're not right or wrong. They simply use information as one of many factors when they make decisions about a product or a new technology. Or as the Nature Biotech editorial puts it:
"[T]hose who dogmatically dismiss a dialog on biotech products because it strays outside science are fundamentally in error. The discussion has moved beyond inventions or discoveries or regulatory systems. It involves products. And biotech products, like the products of any other business, need markets—markets where the values expressed by consumers clearly trump scientific arguments every time. One need look no further than what has happened in Europe in recent years."

(Click here for the complete Nature Nanotech editorial.)
This also means that the current focus on the regulatory aspects of nanotech and its potential toxic qualities is too narrow when it comes to the long-term market potential of nanotech. And of course this also came out at some of the deliberations at AAAS in San Francisco this weekend .

"In her talk at the AAAS Annual Meeting, Colvin said that regulation of existing nanomaterials—including clear labeling—is necessary. But she also suggested that more research toward “safety by design” could bring better products to market in the future."

(Click here for the full release.)

And Colvin is right, of course. As a chemist, she approaches this issue from a scientific angle: “[I]ntegrating and thinking about issues of safety and sustainability as early as possible is really critical.” But there is much more to the story. Competent and innovative public communication requires sound social science. And the future of any commercial success of nanotechnology will depend on our ability to understand how consumers approach these technologies, what their concerns are, how they make decisions, and how we can effectively reach them with messages that are relevant to their concerns.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

An army against emerging science

As Evangelicals are beginning to rethink their escapist stance on global warming (see NYT story from earlier this week), new survey data suggests that years of childhood indoctrination against science and rational thinking may be difficult to overcome.

In fact, a recent Hamilton College poll, conducted by Zogby International with nine hundred high-school sophomores, juniors, and seniors from across the U.S., shows that the religious message continues to resonate. Not only are religious high school students less informed about climate change, they are also significantly less likely to support policy proposals to help stop global warming:
"High-school students who do not affiliate to any religious denomination know more about the causes and consequences of climate change than their counterparts and are 13 percent more likely to claim that the U.S. should start reducing greenhouse gases now than their counterparts do.

(Click here for a PDF version of the complete report.)

Similar to Hamas youth camps allegedly designed to recruit future Jihadist suicide bombers, Evangelicals organize summer camps to train the next generation of soldiers for God ... and against science. Some of those efforts are chronicled in Jesus Camp, which just came out on DVD. Interestingly, a NYT story a few weeks back (see nanopublic posting from January 12, 2007) predicted that about one in 10 New Yorkers will belong to some kind of Pentecostal church by the end of this year. Pentecostal Evalngelicals, of course, believe in the Bible’s word-for-word authority and in speaking in tongues (or unintelligible utterances) as a way of directly interacting with god.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Strategic Communication and Science: Still Too Close for Comfort?

Ralph J. Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Sciences, has an interesting column in the current issue of In Focus. Science communication, he argues, needs to explore new ways of reaching audiences that are increasingly fragmented and more difficult to reach, given our changing information environment. And his assessment is right on target.

"To do that at the Academies, we have started work on finding new ways of stimulating public interest in science. Specifically we are looking at new avenues to provide evidence-based information on select science-based topics to help educate the informed public, key opinion leaders, and other influential actors in appropriate fields."

What may raise eyebrows among some is the idea of opinion leaders in Cicerone's column. Science communicators have shied away for decades from any communication tool that could conceivably be used in marketing, political campaigning, or any other type of persuasive communication. Targeting opinion leaders, however, is just that.

The concept emerged from Paul Lazarsfeld's research in the 40s, much of which was funded by media organizations in order to understand how to better target audiences. Today, a battery of opinion leadership measures is included in most syndicated marketing surveys, such as Needham or Scarborough, and the idea has been rehashed in books like the Tipping Point and The Influentials. Most prominently, Victoria Secret uses opinion leaders or "campus ambassadors" to promote their Pink line among college students.

''There is a paradigm shift in the way that corporations are marketing to college students," said Matt Britton, a managing partner of Mr. Youth, a New York-based firm that specializes in college student marketing. ''The student ambassador tactic embraces all the elements that corporations find most effective: It's peer-to-peer, it's word of mouth, it's flexible, and it breaks through the clutter of other media. For all that, it's growing very quickly."

(Read the full article from the Boston Globe.)

This raises an interesting dilemma for science communicators. Do we want to continue to reject any element of successful communication as spin, simply because it is also being used by marketers, interest groups, or political campaigns? Or can we finally embrace the idea that strategic communication is a tool that can be used for different ends. After all, the exact same communication strategies that Apple uses to convince us to buy an iPod are also at work when Toyota promotes fuel-efficient hybrids or when local communities try to get their citizens to recycle. Strategic communication is not about outcomes. It is about understanding your audience (or rather audiences), about researching how to best reach them, and about delivering messages to them in the formats and media they prefer. And Cicerone is absolutely right. Unless we use these new tools, we will have an increasingly difficult time successfully connecting with a more and more scientifically illiterate public.

Monday, February 05, 2007

FY 2008 budget: $390 million for NSF nanotech research, including center on environmental, health, and safety

The White House just announced its FY 2008 budget proposal, including $390 million for NSF programs related to nanotechnology. Of course, that number is somewhat less impressive if compared to the "$700 billion in new spending for the military," also outlined in Bush's budget proposal.

Here's an excerpt from the FY 2008 budget proposal:

"Working with other agencies as part of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, NSF’s nanotechnology research will continue to advance fundamental understanding of materials at the subatomic, atomic, and molecular levels and will enable the development of capabilities to design, manipulate, and construct revolutionary devices and materials with unprecedented properties. The Budget provides $390 million in 2008 for NSF’s nanotechnology research investments, an increase of 4.5 percent from the level proposed in 2007, including funding for a new NSF center to address environmental, health, and safety research needs for nano-materials."

(Click here for a comprehensive overview of the FY 2008 budget proposal.)

UNEP report on nano and the environment

The U.N. Environment Programme just released its fourth annual report on the environment. The section on "Emerging Challenges" this year is devoted to the environmental benefits and risks of nanotechnology. Some key points are summarized in an IHT piece from today:
"The agency is calling for global test protocols and greater cooperation between private- and public-sector industries and between the developing and industrialized world. UNEP also wants public education about nanotechnology to raise awareness and provide information on the potential benefits and risks.
The "Emerging Challenges" report -- lead-authored by Bernard D. Goldstein at the University of Pittsburgh -- also emphasizes the need for more regulations of nanotechnology, but calls for a "balanced" approach in order "to maximize benefits while minimizing risks.”

Click here for the full report.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Rallying the troops: Mooney and Sokal on the relationship between science and politics

Forget Popper and Kuhn, and think politics. Similar to rally-round-the-flag effects, where events like 9/11 and declarations of war are usually followed by surges in presidential approval ratings and unanimous declarations of support in Congress, the scientific community may be going into an era where external pressure from politics and interest groups will increase internal cohesion and a refocus on ideas like rigor, peer-review, and intersubjectivity.

At least this is one way to read Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal's op-ed in today's LA Times.

"... [The] introspection on the academic left has been a heartening sign, and the pronouncements of extreme relativism have subsided significantly in recent years. This frees up defenders of science to combat the enemy on our other flank: an unholy (and uneasy) alliance of economically driven attacks on science (on issues such as global climate change, mercury pollution and what constitutes a good diet) and theologically impelled ones (in areas such as evolution, reproductive health and embryonic stem cell research)."

(Click here for the complete OpEd.)
Ironically, of course, Alan Sokal's book about the battles within the academic community over objective standards and quality criteria takes on an interesting double meaning in this context. "Fashionable Nonsense" seems an all to appropriate label in times when the public takes their cues on stem cell research and climate change from Ron Reagan, Michael J. Fox and Al Gore instead of scientists and academics, and when ID proponents win the public debate, based on reframing scientific concepts, such as "uncertainty" and "theory."

As Mooney and Sokal put it in their op-ed:
"To avoid nature's punishment, we must take steps now to restore reality-based government."

Update (02/06/07):

Here is a link to various reactions to the op-ed that Chris Mooney has compiled on "The Intersection."

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Myths of Nanotech Outreach

Steven Currall - professor of Enterprise & the Management of Innovation at University College London - just published an excellent op-ed in Business Week on "Debunking the Nanotech Myths." There's really little to add to what he said. Here are a few highlights and the link to the full article.

Myth 2: Consumers must fully understand nanotechnology to have opinions and attitudes toward it.
To the contrary, consumers will form opinions and attitudes despite having little information about nanotechnology. How are consumers learning about nanotechnology? Most are learning from the popular media such as newspapers, magazines, and the Internet. This means that journalists must present information about nanotechnology in an even-handed and impartial manner.
Myth 5: The best strategy for advancing the burgeoning nanotechnology industry is to first accumulate all evidence on any risks of nanotechnology and then distribute the findings to the public.
We will never know every possible environmental, health, or safety risk. Therefore, governmental and business leaders must simultaneously push for greater understanding of possible risks while at the same time being responsible in exploring how nanotechnology may be used in products that can have dramatic societal benefits.

Why Framing Matters: Frank Luntz on "Words that Work"

My colleague Matthew Nisbet over at Framing Science and I have been talking for a while now about the importance of framing for successful public communication and outreach about emerging technologies. One of the key concerns that is often raised, of course, is that framing is nothing else than spin and has no place in "honest" communication.

In fact, I had a stimulating discussion about this with friends and colleagues at the University of South Carolina where I gave a talk earlier this week. And one of the arguments I tried to make during my talk was that all human communication is about delivering messages that are effective for a given audience. What messages do we use to teach 5th graders about ethics, for example? And how do these messages and communication tools differ from the ones we would use a doctoral seminar in ethics?

This week, pollster Frank Luntz was on NPR's Diane Rehm Show to talk about his new book Words that Work. What's really interesting about the book is the sub title "It's not what you say, it's what people hear." And as much as Luntz's work may be motivated by partisanship and winning elections, the subtitle is not about spin, but about the idea of framing. Communication is about tailoring messages to audiences and -- more importantly -- about having a very granular understanding of how audiences make sense of these messages.

Either way, it is worth listening to Frank Luntz's appearance on the Diane Rehm Show (Click here to subscribe to the show's podcast in iTunes.).

On a side note, Journal of Communication is coming out with a special issue this spring that is devoted exclusively to framing and related concepts. The special issue is co-edited by David Tewksbury at the University if Illinois-Urbana Champaign and myself.