Sunday, July 04, 2010

Reactions to Mooney -- or why more data is a good thing

Chris Mooney's recent Washington Post piece and American Academy of Arts & Sciences report (see nanopublic post from June 29, 2010) produced surprisingly strong criticsm from some bloggers.  The idea that the public may increasingly turn to scientists for answers about the social implications of emerging technologies surely cannot come as a surprise to anyone. Neither can the fact that broad societal debates about issues, such as stem cell, nanotechnology and synthetic biology, will take place if we like it or not.

So what was the fuss all about?  Maybe the idea that science as an institution will increasingly be forced to pay attention the social dynamics surrounding breakthrough technologies?  That, for better or worse, is a simple fact, backed by countless studies (see here for an overview), and not a debatable issue stance.

It's therefore particularly surprising that a good portion of the arguments against Mooney's overview are based on normative notions of what scientists should or should not have to do, or on guesswork about how scientists could better connect with public audiences.  Systematic social science data about what the societal realities are that will likely surround science in the next few years or about the most promising approaches for closing science-public divides are noticeably absent from much of this discussion. 

This is not to say that normative policy positions are not worth debating. But in this case, they ironically reinforce the very point Mooney was making in the first place: More social science data would go a long ways toward making all of these debates more fruitful.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

PEN nano consumer product inventory under fire?

Nanotechnology Law & Business today published an online-first version of an interesting piece by David Berube and his colleagues at North Carolina State University’s (NCSU) Public Communication of Science and Technology project (PCOST). The article takes a critical look at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) consumer product inventory. The inventory has been used widely as a gauge of the number and types of nano consumer products currently on the U.S. market.

The NC State team analyzed the products listed in the inventory based on
"product name, company, product category, country of origin, availability (is the product available for purchase), countries where the product may be available, what elemental type of nanotechnology was employed or constituted in the product (e. g., carbon, gold, silver, iron, etc.), distribution channel, whether the source link was functional (source link is a term used by the CPI to indicate reference and it was often redundant with the product website), whether the product website was functional, whether it utilized nanotechnology (determined against claims from the website or source site), and if it was included on EC21 ..., a business to business (B2B) product listing website."
 Based on their analyses, the authors conclude

"that the CPI is not wholly reliable, and does not have sufficient validity to justify its prominence as evidence for claims associated with the pervasiveness of nanotechnology on the U.S. and global markets. In addition, we caution researchers to approach the CPI with care and due consideration because using the CPI as a rhetorical flourish to amplify concerns about market intrusions seems unjustified."
Click here for a PDF of the full article.