Category: Andrew Maynard

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Back in 2008, carbon nanotubes – exceptionally fine tubes made up of carbon atoms – were making headlines. A new study from the U.K. had just shown that, under some conditions, these long, slender fiber-like tubes could cause harm in mice in the same way that some asbestos fibers do. As a collaborator in that study, I was at the time heavily involved in exploring the risks and benefits of novel nanoscale materials. Back then, there was intense interest in understanding how materials like this could be dangerous, and how they might be made safer. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when carbon nanotubes were in the news again, but for a very different reason. This time, there was outrage not over potential risks, but because the artist Anish Kapoor had been given exclusive rights to a carbon nanotube-based pigment – claimed to be one of the blackest pigments ever made. The worries that even nanotech proponents had in the early 2000s about possible health and environmental risks – and their impact on investor and consumer confidence – seem to have evaporated. So what’s changed? Artist Anish Kapoor is known for the rich pigments he uses in his work. Andrew Winning/Reuters Carbon nanotube concerns, or lack thereof The pigment at the center of the Kapoor story is a material called Vantablack S-VIS, developed by the British company Surrey NanoSystems. It’s a carbon nanotube-based spray paint so black that surfaces coated with it reflect next to no light. The original Vantablack was a specialty carbon nanotube coating designed for use in space, to reduce the amount of stray light entering space-based optical instruments. It was this far remove from any people that made Vantablack seem pretty safe. Whatever its toxicity, the chances of it getting into someone’s body were vanishingly

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Peanut-Feature

Peanut allergy continues to increase, and affects an estimated 1% – 3% of the population in Western countries.  Yet we’re still not clear what the cause is. A recent British study though is indicating that exposing infants to peanuts early in their life can – surprisingly perhaps – decrease the chances of them later developing an allergy. The LEAP study – or Learning Early About Peanut allergy – found that, with children who were at risk of developing a peanut allergy, avoiding peanut products for the first five years of their lives were seven times more likely to develop an allergy than those that were regularly exposed. And their latest research suggests that this resistance to allergy continues, even after a period of avoiding peanut products. You can find out more abut the study and its results in the latest video from Risk Bites: This was a collaboration with the YouTube channel ACS Reactions – you can see their half of the allergy story here:  

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Want to uniquely inspire kids about science

Between April 25 – May 6, I’m A Scientist USA will once again be pitting some of the country’s smartest young scientists against middle and high school kids, in the quest to be the Last Scientist Standing. If you’re up for the challenge, you have until April 4 to throw your hat into the ring! I’m A Scientist is an online competition that allows school kids of all backgrounds and abilities to engage with scientists in ways that they would never usually have the chance to.  It’s open to scientists from academia, industry and the public sector. I’m admittedly a little biased here as a member of the I’m A Scientist USA Advisory Board, and a winner in the original UK competition (where it all started). That said, I would rank this as one of the most exciting, rewarding and transformative experiences you can take part in if you’re a young scientist with a passion for inspiring others – especially middle and high school students. Why I’m A Scientist is different What makes I’m A Scientist different from many other “communication opportunities” is that the kids call the shots – with a little help from their teachers and the I’m A Scientist team. As a contestant (and be warned – competition’s fierce to get accepted) – you are placed in a “zone” with four other scientists (“the competition”), and assigned to a group of school classes. Over the competition’s two weeks, your kids (and you’ll get to know some of them pretty well), post questions to the zone, sometimes directing them to you personally.  These can be about pretty much anything – from why’s the sky blue, to what makes a black hole, to what do you do all day (and even what’s your favorite food). You’ll also have a few incredibly intense live chats with

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Public universities must do more

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has been in the national headlines for months, culminating in its central role at a recent debate in the city when Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton slammed government officials for dismissing the health of residents. Sadly, not every marginalized community can depend on a political debate to highlight its cause. But in the absence of media frenzies and heavy-hitting politicians, to whom can beleaguered citizens turn? Before Flint’s water issues hit the big time, help arrived from two unexpected sources – Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, an assistant professor at Michigan State University and director of the Pediatric Residency Program and Hurley Medical Center, and Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech. Their interventions put the Flint water crisis on the map, ultimately leading to the national attention it’s received. Hanna-Attisha and Edwards both work for large public universities. Yet it was their personal actions – not those of their institutions – that gave the citizens of Flint a voice. How much more could have been achieved if public universities themselves had spearheaded efforts to address the water crisis in Flint from the get-go? This is a question I’ve grappled with for some time – both in my current position at Arizona State University (ASU) and previously. At the University of Michigan, for instance, I led a center that sought to connect academic research on risk to ordinary people who could use it. We were successful, although the only record of that now resides on the Internet archive site Wayback Machine. Even with this success, there were many times that I felt it was despite the institution we were a part of, rather than because of it. ‘Costs of doing science’ for the public good Unfortunately, as I’ve experienced firsthand, there’s a stark disconnect

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Three ways synthetic biology could annihilate Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases

In just a few short weeks, Zika has shot from being an obscure infection to a headline-hitting public health disaster. The virus is spreading rapidly across the Americas (and potentially beyond), is suspected of being associated with birth defects that affect brain development and currently has no specific vaccine or treatment. Understandably, scientists are scrambling to respond to what the World Health Organization is now calling a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” In the arsenal of weapons against the mosquito-borne disease, there are tried and tested approaches that include the liberal application of insecticides and repellents, widespread use of mosquito nets and elimination of breeding sites. Yet to combat Zika and other mosquito-borne disease, more is needed. Which is why scientists are increasingly turning to emerging technologies such as synthetic biology for solutions. The joke goes that if you get 10 synthetic biologists in a room together, you’ll get 10 different explanations of what they do. After all, synthetic biology is a young and rapidly evolving field. But underneath this lack of clarity lies a clear and profound shift in our technological capabilities – the ability to “upload” genetic code to computers, edit and manipulate it, and then “download” it into living organisms. In effect, we’ve discovered how to hack biology – how to code in DNA and computer-design living things. It’s early days yet – biology is complex and messy and doesn’t follow the same rules as computer code. But increasingly, scientists are learning how to use synthetic biology to change how organisms operate – including insects that carry dangerous human diseases, such as Zika. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes carry Zika, dengue and chikungunya. Paulo Whitaker Turn off a gene and goodbye mosquitoes Using synthetic biology-based genetic engineering techniques, the British company Oxitec (owned by U.S.-based Intrexon Corp) has

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Can citizen science empower disenfranchised communities

Early in 2015, a group calling itself the Nappy Science Gang hit the parenting scene in the U.K. It was made up of moms and dads who used cloth nappies – or diapers – with their kids, and wanted to know the best ways to keep them clean and safe. The Nappy Science Gang is part of a growing global movement toward citizens getting involved in science. Over the past few years, there’s been an explosion of opportunities for ordinary people to collect data for researchers, and sometimes help analyze it. Platforms such as Zooniverse, Scientific American and SciStarter are all helping citizens (anyone who’s part of a community, in this context) connect with scientists and get involved with the process of scientific discovery. Without doubt, the movement is enabling more people than ever before to become engaged in science and to contribute toward scientific progress. Yet in many of these citizen science projects, researchers remain firmly in the driver’s seat – asking the questions, setting the agenda and making sense of the data. They’re big on engagement, maybe not so much on empowerment – especially when it comes to issues that directly affect participants’ lives. Citizens setting the science agenda This is where the Nappy Science Gang is different. It represents an emerging trend where citizens partner with experts to do the science that’s useful to them and their community, not just someone else. Partnerships like this can have wide-reaching consequences. One question asked by the Nappy Science Gang, for instance, was: why are biological detergents not advisable for washing cloth diapers? Despite this being the advice given by organizations like the U.K. National Health Service, the group’s research findings didn’t seem to support it. So they asked one of their expert advisers for help. Unable to explain things,

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Technology innovation and life in the 21st century Views from Civil Society

In 2009, I commissioned ten guest articles on technology innovation from people working for, associated with or generally reflecting the views of Civil Society groups. Over six years on, these essays still present insightful and often challenging views on technology innovation, and are well worth a revisit. The aim was to expose readers to perspectives on technology innovation that are sometimes drowned out in mainstream conversations, and to give a sense of the breadth of opinions and perspectives that are often lumped under the banners of “civic society” or “Non Government Organizations.” You may not agree with everything that’s written (I’d be surprised and disappointed if you were).  But whether you are a tech believer, a tech skeptic, or somewhere in between, I hope these articles will inform, challenge, surprise, and even amuse you. Biopolitics for the 21st Century Marcy Darnovsky, Center for Genetics & Society Innovation for whom? Innovation for what? The Impact of Ableism Gregor Wolbring, University of Calgary Beyond safety: some bigger questions about new technologies Georgia Miller, Friends of the Earth Innovation for a well-fed world – what role for technology? Geoff Tansey, Food Ethics Council Stop and Think: A Luddite Perspective Jen Sass, Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) A new era of responsible innovation Richard Owen, University of Westminster Ecology and Nanotechnology Richard Worthington, Loka Reversing the Technological Dilemma George Kimbrell, International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA) Innovation in the Doc Tim Jackson, University of Surrey 21st Century Tech Governance? What would Ned Ludd do? Jim Thomas, ETC Group

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What will it take to master the fourth industrial revolution

In April 2000, Bill Joy famously wrote in Wired Magazine: Our most powerful 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species. At the time, Joy was an accomplished technologist and chief scientist at Sun Microsystems. Yet he argued passionately that society was in danger of being destroyed by the very technologies scientists and engineers thought could save it. Nearly 16 years on, Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF), has just published an equally passionate treatise on the power of emerging technologies. Unlike Joy, he maps out a vastly more optimistic future where technology innovation – and our ability to harness it – becomes a powerhouse for social and economic growth. Technology as a revolutionizing force for good Klaus Schwab founded the World Economic Forum in 1971 to ‘improve the state of the world.’ World Economic Forum, CC BY-NC-SA In his new book The Fourth Industrial Revolution – published to coincide with the WEF annual meeting in Davos – Schwab argues that we are at the beginning of a technological revolution that “is fundamentally changing the way we live, work, and relate to one another.” At the heart of Schwab’s revolution is an accelerating convergence between our increasingly powerful technological capabilities. Autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, gene editing, robotics, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things – these and many more emerging trends, he suggests, are arising from an unparalleled melding of physical, biological and digital worlds. These coalescing capabilities are both transforming and being transformed by society. And it is this tight coupling that, to Schwab, signals a new era of technology innovation. Just as the widespread use of steam, electricity and computers have in the past revolutionized society, so, he argues, will this new wave of technological convergence. Are

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What if we approach risk like entrepreneurs approach innovation

If you’ve been following this month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), you’ll know with absolute certainty that the future is cool, shiny and stuffed to the brim with “must-have” gadgets. Reading the ebullient reports, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything other than overflowing optimism for how technology will transform our lives. And admittedly, it’s hard to imagine how smart shoes or a rollable TV screen could possibly be bad for us. From virtual reality so “there” you can almost touch it, to the Internet of every imaginable thing, we’re being dazzled by the seemingly infinite possibilities that modern tech has to offer. But I wonder whether, in all the buzz and hype, we’re in danger of losing sight of the darker side of technology innovation. CES and similar expos represent the glitzy face of deeper trends that could be destructive if developed without a sophisticated appreciation of potential risks. All technologies come with risks With the uncritical enthusiasm around CES, it’s easy to ignore the potential consequences of irresponsible technology innovation. It’s even easier to turn a blind eye to the challenges we face in developing technologies that are good for society as a whole, and don’t just enrich those who create them. Take for example robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) – three trends that were amply represented at the show. While each holds the potential to profoundly change our lives for the better, these technologies are by no stretch of the imagination intrinsically safe. Fears over the consequences of irresponsible AI development have already been widely voiced, and the rapid rise of the Internet of Things threatens to make everyday objects vulnerable to cyber attacks. And all three have the potential to widen the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged. In today’s evolving social

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Steampunk smart pill

It’s that time of year again when technology pundits peer into their crystal balls, and predict the hottest tech trends of the coming twelve months. Let’s be honest though, these lists can get a little stale. So I thought I’d break ranks this year by imagining what a top tech trends list would look like in a “steampunk” world, where steam engines, clockwork mechanisms, and retro-artistic flair, rule supreme.

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ASU Refugee Education Fund

The School for the Future of Innovation in Society aa Arizona State University (ASU) has created a new fund to support refugees whose undergraduate or graduate education has been disrupted because of their circumstances – please give generously.

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If Elon Musk is a Luddite, count me in

On December 21, the company SpaceX made history by successfully launching a rocket and returning it to a safe landing on Earth. It’s also the day that SpaceX founder Elon Musk was nominated for a Luddite Award. It’s an odd juxtaposition, to say the least.

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Hoverboards and health - how good for you is this year’s hottest trend 750x400 2

Walking across campus to my office each morning this semester, I’ve found it hard to ignore the growing number of students using hoverboards to get around. These two-wheel self-balancing boards (they don’t really hover, Back-to-the-Future-style) are one of the hottest gadgets this holiday season. As sedentary lifestyles continue to be a major underlying factor in chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, I wondered whether these trendy two-wheelers are simply another way to avoid the exercise we all need to stay healthy. As it turns out, it’s not only their health that hoverboard users need to worry about.

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Cancer - Countering the bad luck hypothesis

A new study has just been published in the journal Nature that calls the so-called “bad luck hypothesis”of cancer formation into question, and concludes that cancer risk is heavily influenced by external factors.

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Are vegetarian diets really more harmful to the environment

Carnegie Mellon University had an eye-catching headline on its news feed this morning: Eat More Bacon. It was based on a new study that suggests fruit and veg have a higher environmental impact per calorie than meat. However, the analysis failst to take account of the nutritional needs in a healthy diet.

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the real risk from consumer drones this holiday season

This holiday season, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is estimating that over one million small “Unmanned Aerial Systems” (sUAS’s) – drones, to the rest of us – will be sold to consumers. But as hordes of novice pilots take to the air, just how safe are these small bundles of metal, plastic, video cameras and whirling blades?

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Gene Drives

Gene editing and gene drives are rapidly emerging as the disruptive technologies du jour.  But what are they, what can they do, and why should you care? Just last week, research was published that took us a step closer to being able to re-engineer whole species by driving specific genes through successive generations   – the species in this case was mosquitoes, and the trait to be engineered was the ability to host malaria-causing parasites. And this week, The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, together with the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the U.K.’s Royal Society, are co-hosting an international summit on gene editing in humans – and especially the ethical and governance issues emerging capabilities raise. To help make sense of gene drives and the underlying gene editing technologies, there’s a new explainer video on Risk Bites.  Watch the video here, or read the transcript below. Transcript Imagine we could stop mosquitoes from carrying malaria. For good.  Or prevent ticks from transmitting lyme disease. Or eliminate the billions of dollars of damage caused by bugs to our food supplies each year. Gene drives are a radical new approach to genetic engineering that could help us achieve these goals, and a whole lot more.  Yet, as you might expect, the technology isn’t risk-free. Gene drives are designed to eliminate unwanted traits in insects and other animals.  They work by pushing out genetic modifications through whole species, until eventually, every critter has been changed into something we’ve intentionally engineered. The idea isn’t especially new.  But it’s only very recently that advanced gene editing techniques have made human-designed gene drives possible.  And at the heart of this revolution is a new technique for precision-editing genes – clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or if you’re not into brain-bending tongue twisters, CRISPR for short.

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Rethinking Twitter

A few weeks ago, I decided to take a bit of a vacation from Twitter.  I wanted some time to chew over my frustrations over the emerging Twitter culture, and get my head around whether I wanted to be a part of this community, and if so, how to best to participate and engage. While I suspect hardly anyone noticed my absence, I did miss Twitter  – maybe not surprisingly as I’ve been hanging out on the platform for several years now. Not hanging out on Twitter, I found myself less connected to what’s going on, and I missed being able to talk about and engage on things that grabbed my interest. At the same time, taking a break from the snark, gossip and social pressure that pervades Twitter felt really good. As a result I’ve decided to make some changes in how I use Twitter as I end the “vacation” – something I should probably have done some time ago. Here’s what I ended up with: Tweeting Tweet about cool stuff around science, technology, and society Tweet about interesting stuff your colleagues, students and friends are doing Tweet about your own work – but not too much Tweet about random stuff that interests and intrigues you, and makes you smile Retweet tweets about cool stuff around science, technology, and society Retweet tweets about random stuff that interests and intrigues you, and makes you smile Retweet generously tweets from colleagues, students, friends, and followers   Twitter Behavior Treat others with respect Engage generously Promote civil dialog Promote a culture of collegiality, inclusiveness, and engagement Don’t tweet or retweet critical or potentially hurtful comments about individuals Don’t get involved in twitter shaming Don’t block people unless they are extremely and consistently offensive Don’t be an ass If you are an ass, fix it!   Following others Follow people who engage positively with you Follow

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Are you breathing carbon nanotubes and should you be worried

For over two decades, carbon nanotubes have been attracting attention.  First, they were seen as a super-strong, super-conductive new form of carbon that could potentially revolutionize everything from space travel to drug delivery.  Later, concerns were raised that these long, thin, fiber-like materials might cause or exacerbate lung diseases if inhaled. Now, a new study in the journal EBioMedicine has suggested that these microscopic carbon fibers are ubiquitous in the air many of us breathe every day.  And the obvious question that results is: should you be worried? The new paper – a collaboration between scientists in Paris in France, and Texas in the US – analyzed carbon particles found in lung fluid samples from 64 asthmatic children living in Paris.  Using high resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM), they found carbon nanotube-like fibers in each sample.  Similar fibers were found in lung cells from five patients, and dust samples taken from deposits around vehicle tailpipes, and inside buildings close to minor roads. The authors concluded that carbon nanotube are the main component of inhaled particulate matter. At first blush, the paper seems alarming – carbon nanotubes that could be harmful were found in the lungs of children with a lung condition.  However – as the authors acknowledge in the paper – the results, while interesting, don’t provide evidence that these exposures are a health risk. To start with, it wasn’t too surprising that some fibrous carbon-based particle were found in the samples.  Research over the past ten years has indicated that carbon nanotube-like particles are incidentally formed as a by-product in a number of high temperature processes.  In 2006 for instance, Murr and Guerrero found multiwalled carbon nanotubes in soot collected from burning pine wood.  And in 2013, Jung and colleagues found carbon nanotubes amongst diesel exhaust particles under controlled

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Benjamin Franklin and his ipad #3 750x400

Why do people read science blogs? Surprisingly, we don’t have a good answer to this.  There’s a vibrant online community of people blogging about science, and talking about blogging about science, and blogging about blogging and talking about science.  But we don’t know that much about the people that science blogs and bloggers set out to serve. This is a problem from a science communication perspective, because if we don’t know who we’re engaging, and why they’re engaged, it’s very difficult to communicate effectively. To address this rather vital knowledge gap, Dr. Paige Jarreau – one of the foremost researchers on science blogging – has a plan.  Working with 60 bloggers, she will be conducting a large-scale survey of science blog readers to map out who reads these blogs, and why. To my knowledge, it’ll be the largest systematic survey of it’s type, and will provide extremely valuable insights into the effectiveness of science blogging as a way of communicating and engaging on science with non-expert audiences, as well as indicating how science blogging can become an even more effective communication platform.  However, there is a catch. Research costs money, and this project is no exception.  Rather brilliantly though, Paige is raising some of the money needed for the study through crowdfunding. What excites me about this is that it gives the online science community the chance to have skin in the game.  It enables community members to demonstrate their support for, and dedication to, the effective communication of science through blogs.  And it enables the data collection and analysis that will help them better-achieve their science communication aims. And of course, being a science-based community, they understand the importance of data and evidence in guiding decisions and actions, so there’s a rather elegant symmetry to them supporting the work that will generate the data that helps them in their work.

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2020 Science is published by Andrew Maynard - Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. More ... 

Andrew can be found on Twitter at @2020science and on YouTube at Risk Bites

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