Monday, December 25, 2006

Environmental Regulations, Public Diplomacy, and Senator Schwarzenegger



As City of Berkeley officials congratulate each other on being the first local government to put in place nano regulations, their governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is positioning himself as the frontrunner on environmental regulations, more broadly. Not surprisingly, Governor Schwarzenegger has much more of a sense for the national-level realpolitik of environmental issues than his City Council colleagues down in Berkeley. For him, energy conservation and environmentalism are critical tools for solving to the image problem that the U.S. continues to have in most parts of the world. Pro-environmental leadership by the U.S., he argues, will be a key component of successful public diplomacy:

"The war has dragged us down. There's no reason to get political, that's just the way it is," he said. "But you can balance it by being a great leader in the environment."

"The more America shows leadership in that area," he said, "the more we will be loved for that as much as they love us for our hamburgers and for our jeans and for our movies and for our music."

(For the complete Washington Post article, click here.)

Schwarzenegger’s focus on energy conservation and environmental policy is especially interesting, given the keynote speech by Susan Pinkus, Director of polling for the LA Times, at the convention of the Midwest Association for Public Opinion Research this past November in Chicago. Pinkus speculated that Schwarzenegger may be positioning himself to run against Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer when her seat is up for re-election in 2010. For now, that means that California’s Republican governor and its two Democratic Senators push a joint environmental agenda in D.C.:

"California's two senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, have told officials in Sacramento that they intend to model federal legislation on California's greenhouse gas legislation. Schwarzenegger said he is ready to go to Washington to testify on the issue."

(more here.)

Friday, December 22, 2006

House Science Committee goes bipartisan: "Government needs strategy for nano risks"

House Science Committee press release:

WASHINGTON, December 21, 2006 – Outgoing Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and incoming Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) today reiterated their call for the Administration to establish a research agenda with clear priorities to ensure a greater understanding of the potential environmental, health and safety risks associated with nanotechnology.

Boehlert and Gordon made their comments in a joint statement today that accompanied the release of witness responses to questions issued by the Committee following the September 21 hearing, Research on Environmental and Safety Impacts of Nanotechnology: What are the Federal Agencies Doing? The witnesses’ responses, along with other materials from the hearing, are available on the Science Committee’s website.

Boehlert and Gordon issued the following statement:

“The witness answers have provided useful insights for the next Congress to consider. In particular, we think the next Congress must continue to review whether an outside entity, like the National Academy of Sciences, ought to be charged with putting together a research agenda with clear priorities on environmental, health and safety issues related to nanotechnology, and whether the Health Effects Institute ought to carry out some of the more sensitive public health research. Regardless of the role of outside organizations, we continue to believe that the federal government needs to move much more quickly to put together a truly coordinated strategic plan for research in this area along the lines of the recommendations that were recently published in the journal Nature.”


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

It's official: City of Berkeley regulates nano

The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously yesterday to amend the Berkeley Municipal Code and add a disclosure requirement on nanoparticles:
15.12.040 Filing of disclosure information. I. All facilities that manufacture or use manufactured nanoparticles shall submit a separate written disclosure of the current toxicology of the materials reported, to the extent known, and how the facility will safely handle, monitor, contain, dispose, track inventory, prevent releases and mitigate such materials.
The new code forces researchers and manufacturers to report what nanotechnology materials they are working with and how they are handling them (see Foxnews.com for more information).

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Journalists as Newsmakers: Rick Weiss on Nano

Press Release

Nanotechnology: The Story Behind the Headlines
Thursday December 7, 11:21 am ET

WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 /PRNewswire/ -- Little science is big news, or is it? Does the media tend to hype nanotechnology, or neglect it? Do newspaper headlines focus more on nanotechnology's risks than its benefits? How do journalists write stories on a technology about which most Americans know next to nothing and that is invisible to the human eye?

With governments, corporations and venture capitalists spending $9.6 billion annually on nanotechnology research and development, and with an estimated $2.6 trillion in global manufactured goods incorporating nanotechnology -- or about 15% of total output -- expected by 2014, there is a lot at stake in how these questions are answered.

The Woodrow Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies will explore these questions at a program featuring The Washington Post's science and medical reporter Rick Weiss, and Leigh University professor Sharon M. Friedman. Mr. Weiss will talk about the challenges of writing about nanotechnology, especially in the face of scant popular understanding of the technology or its potential to change virtually every aspect of people's lives. Professor Friedman will report her findings from six years of tracking U.S. and U.K. newspaper and wire service coverage of nanotechnology risks, work she did in collaboration with Brenda P. Egolf of Lehigh University.

The event and live webcast will take place on Wednesday, December 13th at 10:00 a.m. in the 5th Floor Conference Room of the Woodrow Wilson Center (http://www.wilsoncenter.org/directions).


*** Webcast LIVE at http://www.wilsoncenter.org/nano ***

What:

Nanotechnology: The Story Behind the Headlines

Who:

Rick Weiss, Medical and Science Reporter, The Washington Post
Sharon M. Friedman, Professor and Director of the Science &
Environmental Writing Program, and Associate Dean, Lehigh
University
David Rejeski, Director, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

When:

Wednesday, December 13th, 2006, 10:00 - 11:00 a.m.

Where:

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 5th Floor
Conference Room. 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.

     

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

U.S. public opinion about nano still fairly neutral

CBC just reported on the latest public opinion poll on nanotechnology in the U.S. The phone survey was conducted by Zogby International for Steven C. Currall at the University College London, and Neal Lane at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy (Lane, of course, was also Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Clinton administration) and focused on comparisons between nanotech and other emerging technologies, such as GMOs and nuclear power.

"[The study] examined how the public's perceptions of nanotechnology are being shaped by consumer trends and whether awareness will lead to increased support for research.

Currall and Lane conducted 503 interviews in the United States by randomly dialing telephone numbers from a list, and asking respondents about their perceptions of nanotechnology in the context of other technologies, such as nuclear power and genetic modification of organisms (GMO).

"Our results showed that nanotechnology was seen as relatively neutral; it was perceived as less risky and more beneficial than a number of other technologies, such as GMO, pesticides, chemical disinfectants and human genetic engineering," the study says.

However, the study also found that it was seen as "more risky and less beneficial " than solar power, vaccinations, hydroelectric power and computer display screens."

(Click here for the full CBC story.)

The study, which appears in the December issue of Nature Nanotechnology, is the latest iteration in a series of public opinion polls that have all found relatively low levels of awareness among the general public and no widespread concerns directly linked to nanotechnology. Unfortunately, the Currall/Lane study was in the field too early to tap into any impact that the recent EPA regulations of consumer products containing certain nano-sized silver particles may have had (see nanopublic posting from November, 23, 2006).


What is interesting, however, is Currall et al.'s conclusion that benefit perceptions provide important contingencies for opinion formation among the general public. This finding is not necessarily new, but it highlights once again the argument that the first highly visible applications on the consumer market will have a significant impact on people's willingness to live with certain risks and uncertainties.

(Click here for a copy of Steven Currall's presentation at today's web cast for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Red nano milk?

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany's left-leaning national dailies, speculated about the risks and benefits of emerging applications of nanotechnology last month. Among the potential applications that were discussed: milk containing nanoparticles that change their color and turn the milk red when it goes bad.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the commercial success of this idea will be limited, even for the U.S. market. After FlavrSavr and Frankenfood, one would assume that scientists and corporations have understood where consumers draw the line in the sand. But regardless of where exactly that line is, it's fairly safe to assume that red milk crosses it.

Nanoparticles, of course, are already used in numerous food-related applications, such as ketchup or vitamin supplements, and public protests have been limited. But consumers will not react favorably to products that remind them of the nanotechnology-based additives that they contain every time they take a sip from a carton of expired milk.

And when it comes to attitude formation, it does not matter if consumer concerns are justified or if they are based on an accurate understanding of the science behind these new technologies. What matters are public perceptions. And those perceptions, for better or worse, are often based on religious views, moral concerns, and other cognitive shortcuts that allow citizens to form opinions even in the absence of sufficient information. It's somewhat surprising, therefore, that some scientists still do not seem to be aware of the large body of empirical research on public perceptions about scientific issues, such as GMOs, stem cell research, and nanotechnology. And it's equally fascinating to see the naive surprise in some scientific circles and the calls for more public information campaigns every time there's a public backlash against a new technology or a policy proposal to regulate funding and research. One thing is for certain: If nano milk ever becomes a reality, it will produce both.



Saturday, December 02, 2006

Grey goo concerns become reality ... virtually



Second Life TM
-- online playground for those who don't have a first one -- was brought to its knees late last month when Linden Lab's servers were attacked by what experts described as a self-replicating worm attack named 'Grey Goo'. The interesting and somewhat humorous aspect of this story is that this incident may have done more to create awareness of this nanotech-related concern than any other medium.
"The massive attack marked the third time since September that the world created by San Francisco-based Linden Lab got overrun by quickly reproducing digital objects. The term "grey goo" comes from a hypothetical threat of nanotechnology: A self-replicating nanobot could consume the Earth's resources, transforming the world into a giant blob of grey goo. Some biotechnologists have warned about tailored viruses that could have a similar, but limited, effect. The virtual world of World of Warcraft as well has had at least one instance of a digital disease that struck down players' avatars." (for the full SecurityFocus story, click here.)

Douglas Soo, studio director for Linden Lab, pushed the nano angle even further in an email interview reported in the SecurityFocus piece:

"In the same way that it is theorized that out-of-control nanotech could consume all of the physical resources of the world and turn it into grey nanotech goo, Second Life grey goo can theoretically consume all of the available server resources of the Second Life world and fill it with grey goo objects".

...

To combat grey goo attacks, the company has implemented a ceiling on how fast objects can replicate and also limited the replication from crossing region boundaries in Second Life. Called a grey-goo fence, the defensive measure failed to stop the most recent attack because the rings propagated at a much slower rate, under the fence's throttling threshold.



Prince Charles of Wales was one of the first
politicians to publicly warn about the
dangers
of grey goo.