The nanotech gamble – double or nothing?

by Andrew Maynard on April 20, 2010

There’s a bit of a brouhaha over nanotechnology safety brewing over at AOL Online.  A few weeks ago, investigative reporter Andrew Schneider posted a series of articles questioning both the safety of nanotechnology-enabled products entering the market, and the US government’s response to the emerging challenge.  Today, Clayton Teague – Director of the US National Nanotechnology Coordination Office – hit back with an opinion piece calling Schneider to task…

I mention this because earlier today, Andrew Schneider posted a new article in his nanotechnology series that examined a recent report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology – a report which Teague describes in his op-ed as “Perhaps the best and most impartial review of the nation’s efforts in the realm of nanotechnology safety and oversight.” In this new piece, Schneider quotes me on yet another document that is germane to this debate.

Confused yet?  Let me try and explain.

When Schneider’s original series – “The Nanotech Gamble: Bold Science.  Big Money. Growing Risks” – came out, the feds were understandably upset; they didn’t fare too well in the assessment, and felt that they – not to mention the science – were a little hard done by.  So they set to work on developing a strategy to counter the pieces.

As it happens, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative was due to hold a public workshop on nanotechnology risk and ethical issues a few days after the AOL series was published.  At this meeting were a number of invited speakers and guests from academia, business and elsewhere – a perfect venue for public questions about nanotechnology-related risks, but also a potential opportunity to put some misunderstandings and misconceptions to bed.

I’m not privy to the events between the publication of the AOL pieces and the so-called Capstone meeting, but I do know that they resulted in some (not all) of the invited speakers and guests being issued with “response points” – just in case they were asked some tricky questions.

These response points were circulated widely, and as a result copies of them landed in my email box – this wasn’t a restricted document.  I mention this because Andrew Schneider’s latest piece not only refers to them, but also quotes my response to reading them (I’m not going to cite myself – you can read what I had to say here).

However, as their existence is now out in the open, I thought it only fair that I let others see what Schneider was referring to:

AOL Story about Nanotech – Some Response Points

  • AOL Web site is running a three-day series on nanotechnology by a reporter who has spent months reporting the story, including interviews with many agency scientists.
  • Takes an alarmist perspective: Despite the lack of evidence that anyone has ever been harmed by an engineered nano product, it presumes that nanotechnology (wrongly construed to be a singular entity) is inherently dangerous until proven safe, ignoring reality that nanotech encompasses an enormous range of materials and products whose risk—if any—depends on where and how they are made and used.
  • Uses irrelevant examples, for example: Cites a study finding DNA damage in mice fed nano-TiO2 (used in paint and sunscreens), but no studies have shown a convincing link between this widely used chemical and human illness and the story does not mention (but we have checked and learned) that exposures in the study were more than 10 times those allowed in food by FDA regs.
  • Claims that “most federal agencies “are doing little to nothing to ensure public safety” and are “ignoring warning signs.” Truth is the U.S. is the global leader in research into nanotech’s potential environmental, health, and safety (EHS) risks.
    • Between FY 2005 and FY 2009 the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) will have invested $254 million in research whose primary function is to understand EHS issues—more than all other countries in the world combined. And that does not count the large amounts of research that contribute to health and safety knowledge indirectly, such as basic research on how to measure the stuff in the first place.
    • Federal research dedicated to nano-related EHS research has grown substantially from $34.8 million in FY 2005 to $74.5 million in FY 2009 and an estimated $91.6 million for FY 2010. The FY 2011 request is a record $116.9 million.
  • Risk must be balanced against benefits, and the essentially theoretical risk that has so far been identified should be balanced against the benefits in terms of sophisticated products and economic growth and jobs created by this expanding industry.
  • Just yesterday (Thurs) PCAST released its report on the National Nanotechnology Initiative—the the 10-year-old, multiagency initiative that has supported this fledgling science of the extremely small to the tune of about $12 billion over the past decade—finding that the U.S. is the global leader in nanotech by any number of measures (including patent filings, scientific journal citations, and investments in R&D).  This is a young and promising industry we can still own as a Nation, so we should not let fear overtake common sense, even as safety studies and regulatory updates continue.

(Circulated by the federal government to some external guests and speakers at the March 30-31 NNI Capstone meeting on March 26)

Great fodder for a case study on how a government initiative investing in a new technology responds to public criticism, don’t you think?

1 Bryony Ross April 21, 2010 at 5:27 am

Great observations Andrew – its unsettling to see Government stepping so easily on fundamental values like independence of opinion and freedom of speech, especially when I didn’t think the news articles to which this refers were put together badly at all…

2 Dexter Johnson April 21, 2010 at 6:42 am

First of all, it does not appear from these talking points anyone is trying to curb people’s freedom of speech. To suggest such a thing is…well…let’s call it hyperbole.

Second, I simply don’t understand how it is fundamentally wrong our unprincipled for a government agency to prepare a set of counter arguments for scientists to have as reference in case they are asked about a news story. Scientists are not typically as well prepared for the media war and battle for public perception that your typical anti-nanotech crusader is. So it only stands to reason to give them a little preparation, no?

Now if the talking points are wrong in some way or are deliberately misleading than that’s another issue altogether. But it doesn’t seem that’s the contention here, or is it?

3 Andrew Maynard April 21, 2010 at 7:00 am

One of the reasons I posted the discussion points was so that others could make up their own mind about them – I realize my concern might quite legitimately not be shared by everyone, and that some might indeed see this as a helpful move.

However, two things do disturb me about them: The tone and focus here suggests the US Government is protecting its investment in nanotechnology, which begs the question – who is representing the interests of citizens and the environment in this enterprise? More significantly from my perspective, these were provided to non-government speakers at a government-sponsored event – to me that potentially undermines independence of the speakers.

If this was an industry-sponsored workshop and speakers were provided with industry-crafted talking points along these lines, I have to wonder what the reaction would be.

I actually think the talking points – and the manner of their circulation – are more naive than anything else. But I think they do demonstrate the need for an approach to risk, uncertainty and safety that isn’t so closely tied to the technology’s promotion, and the justification of investment in the field.

4 Hilary Sutcliffe April 21, 2010 at 8:11 am

Tricky. I think it is perfectly acceptable for any organisation – government, business or any stakeholder to rebut what they feel are misleading statements. If this had been positioned as a statement which said ‘Here is our statement in response to the AOL articles which we feel is misleading and misrepresents our efforts’ for your interest and given to the speakers and circulated widely then I personally would feel that acceptable. As you say, it is because it was in the form of a ‘crib sheet’ that the problem lies.

I don’t think it really undermines the speakers, who will see it as a bit of government propaganda and treat it accordingly. However it does underline the difficulties of sorting the wood from the trees. I find the articles a mixed bag of excellent points which are of genuine concern and polemical ranty bits which are misleading, sometimes wrong and very annoying. They are also positioned, like the government perspective, as ‘The Truth’.

This is the problem even for me who reads all the stuff, I don’t know what ‘the truth’ is because everyone has an agenda and I don’t know who’s information to trust.

It’s a poor answer really to call for better communication, but I do feel that it is essential. Companies have to communicate better (which will be the focus of a business round table group we have convened), if it is all tested and safe great, just share the testing with us and we will be happy. Governments need to be more open and responsive, ngos also need to be rigorous in their thinking and the research they do to support their arguments. However, ngos are time poor, they are not scientists in the main and they have limited information to go on, no wonder they have to take broad positions may inflame the debate.

The problem is, it is too complicated and we rely on people like Andrew to translate the ‘real story’. We badly need this perspective. The Responsible Nano Forum and subsequently MATTER would love to take that role, but no-one will pay for us a hire a few more Andrew’s to help with that job.

It was interesting that in the UK the government was accused of too much focus on health and safety in its recent strategy, but we’ve still got to see the cash for that too, so will see what the election bring out on that one.

5 Andrew Maynard April 22, 2010 at 4:34 am

I also think that this exchange between Schneider and the NNI highlights the need for a more sophisticated understanding of public communication within the government. As you point out, the AOL pieces were patchy and clearly slanted towards a particular agenda. Yet there are plenty of ways to counter this type of coverage without going on the defensive. One way would have been to acknowledge the concern that emerging technologies like nanotech raise, confirm that the US government takes this seriously, and then talk about some of the things that agencies are doing to ensure people and the environment and citizens are both protected, while receiving the benefits of responsible technology development. What really doesn’t work is going on about what a great job the feds are doing and how much money they are spending.

The irony is that the feds are doing some good stuff on nanotech safety. But when it comes to engaging with stakeholders – including working with and through the media – their notions of what is appropriate seem decades out of date!

6 Ruth Seeley April 21, 2010 at 10:15 am

It’s unfortunate that these were referred to and distributed as talking points – Hilary’s right when she says that if they’d appeared merely as a statement instead – even as an op ed a couple of weeks after the first three articles in the AOL series had appeared – they’d be perceived as necessary rather than argumentative, in a setting-the-record straight sort of way. They’re easily tweaked to be less confrontational and less defensive. The whole thing is odd though….

7 Andrew Maynard April 22, 2010 at 4:36 am

I agree completely. But this is what makes the exchange such an intriguing case study into how the US government copes with and responds to criticism.

8 Maria Powell April 21, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Sorry Andrew, I couldn’t resist temptation to also pose these questions to you here:

–What “misunderstandings and misconceptions” do you (and the NNI?) think could/should be put to rest at the Capstone meeting?
–Whose misunderstandings and misconceptions are they…?
–Do you think the AOL series was “alarmist”, as the NNI talking points say?
–If so, who will these articles alarm–why and how??

This whole conversation assumes that the Schneider series could (and perhaps is) causing widespread “misunderstandings and misconceptions” (presumably among publics). What evidence is there for this assumption? What does the NNI’s “fear of public misperception” suggest about how they and others in this conversation view publics? Who do they think has the “correct” understandings and perceptions–and how should these entities relay their correct perceptions to the clueless, mis-directed, and easily alarmed publics?

I think we need to widen the frame of analysis and clarify the various fears and mispercepetions we are talking about here–and perhaps most importantly, whose fears and misperceptions they are.

Just food for thought….

Maria

9 Andrew Maynard April 22, 2010 at 4:58 am

OK, lets see if I can do this succinctly:

What “misunderstandings and misconceptions” do you (and the NNI?) think could/should be put to rest at the Capstone meeting?
I was being somewhat sarcastic here (as you probably realized) – noting that from NNI’s perspective the capstone meeting clearly appeared to be a great place to let the world know how wrong Schneider was and how right they were. As it was, it was a poor venue for reaching out to and engaging with non-professional stakeholders – members of the public without a professional excuse to be there.

Do you think the AOL series was “alarmist”, as the NNI talking points say?

10 Maria Powell April 22, 2010 at 9:50 am

Indeed, I specialize in posing very difficult questions that even I cannot answer ;-) Sorry about that! Thanks for the thoughtful answers–I know how busy you are.

Just a couple more points before I go back to my Internet-free writing sabbatical. As far as reporters and others having “an agenda”–as far as I know everyone, (including reporters) has an agenda, whether they know or admit it or not (even if it is to just “neutrally” report what scientists say, or to keep their job, or to sell the science, or…).

Also, Maryse’s great comments brought up some further questions in my mind about NNI’s rationale for distributing these talking points at the Capstone meeting. This was a meeting primarily of academics (and a few NGOs), right? “The public” certainly wasn’t there (why/how would they be?). Were reporters expected to be there?

This suggests to me that the NNI sees academics–or at least the academics invited to this meeting– as playing key roles in disseminating their talking points to the public, which I think is veeeeerry interesting. Maybe I am wrong?

OK, that’s all, I’ll stop. Thanks again Andrew for taking a stab at my difficult questions.

11 Maryse de la Giroday April 21, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Hi All! I imagine there are investigative reporters the world round who are going to be saying this prayer tonight: “Dear Lord, Please, please let Clayton Teague and his team at the NNI being in charge of the communication for any government agency that I have decided to write about. Please, Lord! I’ll do anything.”

First, I hate dealing with over-rehearsed, over-briefed, and over-careful spokespersons/experts (most boring interviews ever). Dexter, that’s my chief objection to briefing notes. People tend to use them as scripts. As for telling outside experts what to say, that’s crossing a line. The most they should have done (as far as I’m concerned) is make a factual observation along the lines of: “There have been a recent series of articles by Andrew Schneider for AOL News which may stimulate some questions about health & safety and environmental initiatives in the US.”

I do wonder if anyone involved on the government end of this communication looked up Schneider. Hilary, you were very close to the mark when you commented about the articles as presenting (in common with the government’s presentation) The Truth. Or did you know that Schneider’s personal blog is called The Cold Truth? Interesting, non?

His previous personal blog was called Andrew Schneider Investigates. That title is less interesting but the graphic has a pen positioned in such a way that it seems like a missile. Oh and I looked him up, he’s uncovered a number of scandals and won two Pulitzers along the way. My guess is that he’s had a lot more experience dealing with contentious issues than the NNI and Clayton Teague.

Finally, I’m puzzled as to why Clayton Teague and the NNI reacted as they did. I didn’t observe that much interest or excitement about Schneider’s series. And, Schneider has some very good points.

12 Andrew Maynard April 22, 2010 at 4:59 am

Brilliant Maryse – thanks ;-)

13 Andrew Maynard April 21, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Thanks all for the great comments – Maryse’s in particular brought a smile to my face! Am without proper Internet access until Friday, but will respond more fully then.

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