Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On the importance of social science for scientific progress

Chris Mooney had an excellent piece in the Washington Post on Sunday on the importance of communicating science and social science, more broadly, for scientific progress in the U.S.  From his concluding paragraphs:
"Experts aren't wrong in thinking that Americans don't know much about science, but given how little they themselves often know about the public, they should be careful not to throw stones. Rather than simply crusading against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.

They might, in the process, find a few pleasant surprises. For one thing, the public doesn't seem to disdain scientists, as scientists often suppose. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that Americans tend to have positive views of the scientific community; it's scientists who are wary of the media and the public."
And there may be more of a fertile ground for Mooney's recommendations than he implies in his last point. While the AAAS/Pew survey cited in Mooney's piece suggests that scientists are weary of getting caught up in the often heated public discourse surrounding scientific controversies, more systematic survey data from Europe, Asia and the U.S. show that this is not true for many of the leading scientists in fields, such as nanotechnology or stem cell research. A number of colleagues and I detailed these findings in a piece in The Scientist last year:
"What looks like a widespread anti-media sentiment [in the AAAS data] may also have been triggered, at least in part, by question wording. The AAAS survey did not ask respondents if they agreed or disagreed that news media oversimplified findings but, rather, how much of a problem respondents thought it was that they did. Our surveys of biomedical and nanotechnology experts instead asked scientists to express their agreement or disagreement with various statements about the quality of media coverage of their scientific field.

When asked in this more balanced way, 54% of the nano scientists disagreed "somewhat" or "strongly" that media coverage was "hostile toward science." In fact, when asked about the scientific accuracy of coverage, nano scientists were split, with 27% believing that it was inaccurate, 28% believing it was accurate, and about 45% falling in the neutral middle category. Similarly, 49%of biomedical researchers disagreed that media coverage was "hostile toward science," while only 12% agreed. Their assessments of accuracy were similarly split: 33% believed that coverage of their field was inaccurate, 35% believed it was accurate and 32% were undecided."

The Mooney piece is based on a longer report he did for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Also, for a follow-up with reactions from STS, policy and communication scholars, see Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Friends of the Earth turn to web advertising to push their view of EHS nano dangers

The battle over the summer news hole is on.  Friends of the Earth just announced the launch of a web advertising campaign to promote their "public education" effort about potential environmental and human health impacts of nanoparticles in sunscreens:
“What many beachgoers and others enjoying the summer sun don’t know is that the sunscreens they’re using contain manufactured nanoparticles that pose health risks,” said Friends of the Earth’s health and environment campaigner, Ian Illuminato. “What more and more studies are showing is that manufactured nanoparticles may be able to damage cells and have harmful health repurcussions. They also pose risks to workers and the environment, and there’s no evidence that they make sunscreens more effective at blocking the sun’s harmful rays.”
The "education" campaign also dusts off FoE's 2007 Consumer Guide for Avoiding Sun Screens and various other reports from a few years back.

The timing is impeccable, of course, keeping alive a news wave started last week by a push from NY Senator Sen. Chuck Schumer to have the Food and Drug Administration looking into a possible link between retinyl palmitate in sun screens and skin cancer in humans.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

PCAST looking for input on innovation potential of bio, nano and info tech

From the PCAST call for input:
"New technologies are changing our world fast, as is obvious to anyone using the latest smart phone, wearing the latest nano-fiber fabric, or filling a prescription for the latest biotech-derived medicine. Now the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) wants to hear from you about how the Federal government can best use its resources so three of the newest and most promising technologies provide the greatest economic benefits to society.

This information-gathering process is being coordinated by the President’s Innovation and Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), part of the PCAST. Through PCAST, PITAC advises the President on matters involving science, technology, and innovation policy. As part of its advisory activities, PITAC is soliciting information and ideas from stakeholders—including the research community, the private sector, universities, national laboratories, State and local governments, foundations, and nonprofit organizations—regarding a technological congruence that we have been calling the “Golden Triangle.”

Each side of the Golden Triangle represents one of three areas of research that together are transforming the technology landscape today: information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. Information technology (IT) encompasses all technologies used to create, exchange, store, mine, analyze, and evaluate data in its multiple forms. Biotechnology uses the basic components of life (such as cells and DNA) to create new products and new manufacturing methods. Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating and characterizing matter at the atomic and molecular levels. Each of these research fields has the potential to enable a wealth of innovative advances in medicine, energy production, national security, agriculture, aerospace, manufacturing, and sustainable environments—advances that can in turn help create jobs, increase the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), and enhance quality of life. In combination, through what some have called the nano-bio-info convergence, the potential for these fields to transform society is even greater.
PITAC is interested in gaining a better understanding of how the Federal government can enhance this potential, and would like to gather public information and input as to how to best do so. It is posing the following question:
What are the critical infrastructures that only government can help provide that are needed to enable creation of new biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technology products and innovations that will lead to new jobs and greater GDP?
We’d like to hear your thoughts regarding unique opportunities at the intersections of these fields; where the basic research is taking us and what knowledge gaps remain; impediments to commercialization and broad use of these technologies; infrastructure required to properly test, prototype, scale, and manufacture breakthrough technologies; where the Federal government should invest and focus; and what Federal policies or programs relating to these technologies are in need of review and whether new programs or policies may be needed in light of recent and anticipated advances in these fields.

There are two ways you can share your thoughts on this topic. First, you can go to the OpenPCAST website, where you can contribute your ideas on this and a few related questions. Second, you can be part of a live Webcast discussion scheduled to take place on Tuesday, June 22 from 10 am to 2:30 pm. You can watch the Webcast on the PCAST website and submit your comments via Facebook or Twitter. See the PCAST site for more details.

The information we gather from these activities will guide PCAST/PITAC as we recommend policies and programs relevant to the Golden Triangle of technologies, and as we continue our work to propose ways to implement the President’s “Strategy for American Innovation.” It will also help us identify studies that might be conducted as part of PCAST/PITAC’s “Creating New Jobs through Science, Technology, and Innovation” initiative.

We look forward to hearing from you!
Shirley Ann Jackson and Eric Schmidt are members of PCAST"